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27 October 2022

Why do the Tories hate north London?

There’s something uncomfortable about how the area has become the butt of Tory jokes about out-of-touch elites.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Here’s a question: what do Conservatives have against north London?

I ask because, frankly, they seem obsessed. At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Keir Starmer asked about comments Rishi Sunak made during the summer Tory leadership contest, when he boasted about “changing funding formulas” to funnel money intended for “deprived urban areas” to places such as affluent Tunbridge Wells in Kent. (The New Statesman’s own Rachel Wearmouth got the scoop.) Sunak’s response was that Starmer doesn’t understand that there are deprived areas all over the country because he “rarely leaves north London”.

The fact that this line got a rousing cheer from the Tory back benches, as though nationwide poverty were something to be proud of after 12 years in power, is a story in itself – but as a resident of north London I feel this particular jibe requires further scrutiny. Sunak isn’t alone: Liz Truss found time, in the 50 days during which she was prime minister, to rail against the members of the “anti-growth coalition” who “taxi from north London townhouses to the BBC studio”. And Boris Johnson used his 2021 conference speech (how was that only a year ago) to dismiss Starmer as a “lefty Islington lawyer”.

There is a lot to unpack here, starting with the hypocrisy. Johnson grew up in Primrose Hill (in a house that sold for £11.25m in 2018) in the constituency now represented by Starmer, and lived for much of his political career in Islington, in a £3.75m grade-II listed townhouse. Maybe that’s why the former PM was under the illusion that the whole borough is especially affluent – a misconception his successors have seized on. In fact, according to the most recent data Islington is home to some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England. The 2019 Indices of Multiple Deprivation, meanwhile, found it is the 53rd most deprived local authority area in England (out of 317 – putting it in the top sixth) and the sixth most deprived local authority in London. It also has a worse child poverty rate than the average across England.

Zoom out of Islington to north London more generally and you will find a similar picture. The boroughs of Enfield, Brent, Haringey, Hackney and Waltham Forest are all flagged by the ONS (scroll down here to see the first yellow map) as having more deprived neighbourhoods than the national average. They certainly have far more deprivation than, for example, Tunbridge Wells.

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There’s something a bit uncomfortable, therefore, about how north London has become the butt of Tory jokes about out-of-touch metropolitan liberals. Given the area is well-known for being home to the country’s largest Jewish communities and the frequency with which “north London” is used as a shorthand for Jewish in anti-Semitic circles, it’s not surprising that some Jews (myself included) wince at the connotations. I know that’s not what Sunak (or Truss, or Johnson) intend when they use the term or ones like it, but anyone aware of how tropes about wealthy elites intersect with anti-Semitism should be cautious.

As for recent Labour leaders having happened to live in or around Islington (Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn and now Starmer), the Tories now have one who owns a six-bedroom mansion in Kensington (worth £6.6m, but that’s west London not north London so apparently that’s fine) – not to mention Sunak’s additional “guest” flat down the road, as well as the Yorkshire family manor house (£2m) and a penthouse apartment in Santa Monica (£5m). The richest modern occupant of 10 Downing Street isn’t really in a position to be lecturing anyone about where they live or what it says about their awareness of poverty across the UK (especially given – as mentioned – he seems to think Tunbridge Wells was in need of levelling-up funds).

All this is probably a bit pointless in the wider context of the cost-of-living crisis and the second round of austerity Sunak is about to embark on that will hit the entire nation. Distinctions between different parts of the capital aren’t really relevant to people who live outside it – all singling out north London does is remind the country that Sunak is as much of an out-of-touch metropolitan as the politicians he’s arguing with. But that doesn’t make it any less bizarre that a string of Tory leaders have decided that it’s fine to use lazy (and incorrect) stereotypes about where people live because they don’t have the facts or the skills to debate them properly. “I don’t have to listen to you, you come from north London,” they say, before returning to their multi-million pound properties in Kensington, or Greenwich, or Camberwell.

[See also: The fall of Liz Truss will not bring calm but rather a new period of conflict]

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