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London is now seen as a cultural enemy and local election results have exacerbated a sad divide

The i 06/05/2022 Ian Dunt

Anyone watching the election results come in would have thought that London is some hostile, far-off land, with a history of animosity towards the English.

“Labour fail to make big gains in England,” the Sky headline read, “but snatch key London councils from Tories.” What an extraordinary thing to read. Until now, many of us had presumed that London was in England.

It was supplemented by condescending political commentary from anonymous Tory sources. “There are more Nuneatons than Westminsters out there,” one told the Politico website dismissively. Doing well in London “is not going to bode well” for Labour, another told Times Radio’s Lucy Fisher, because it will “reinforce the notion in working class people’s eyes that they are now the party of the metropolitan elite”.

As it happens, Keir Starmer’s performance in London and the so-called Red Wall told a similar story, albeit to different degrees: Labour was modestly improving in the polls.

In London, the party claimed Tory councils like Wandsworth and Westminster. But it was also improving its standing in the Red Wall, from a lower starting point.

That sounds strange, given that Labour declined in its former heartland compared with 2018, when these seats were last contested. But 2018 is not the right place to look for trends. Back then, Jeremy Corbyn was at his high water mark against Theresa May. The place to look is 2019, when Labour lost the Red Wall and Boris Johnson secured his crushing majority.

If the party is now performing at roughly where it was in these seats in 2018, it is clearly repairing the damage of the last general election. Together with a Liberal Democrat assault on Blue Wall seats in the south, it makes it possible – likely even – that Johnson will lose his majority at the next election.

But instead, the debate has centred on a different story, one we’ve heard countless times since 2016: The Tale of Two Countries. London as the bastion of the out-of-touch metropolitan elite. England as the salt-of-the-earth.

And there is, as with all myths, a kernel of truth in it. Voting intention still breaks down on demographic lines, particularly on age and education levels, which are themselves geographically clustered. But we long ago gave up that degree of analysis and started to deal in brute binary categories.

London voted Remain in the Brexit referendum. England as a whole voted Leave. Over the years that followed, that Leave vote was rebranded as the “will of the people”, which in turn meant that London, and other major cities, were enemies of the people, or at the very least not part of them.

Dominic Cummings never wasted an opportunity to cement this divide when he was in Downing Street. “You guys should get out of London,” he’d tell gathered journalists as he left his North London home. “Go talk to people who are not rich Remainers.”

Even after his departure, that attitude remained. It’s why Conservative sources find themselves in the frankly insane position of briefing journalists that they are happy the opposition won London seats. It’s why they can somehow treat the capital of the country they govern as a cultural opponent. It’s why they’ve become so intellectually degraded that they can suggest the entire city is populated by the rich.

In reality, average personal wealth in London is lower than it is in southern England. A higher proportion of Londoners live in poverty than in any other part of the UK. London consistently contributes more to the state in tax payments than it receives in public spending. Far from existing separately, it subsidises the country.

But that idea of it as some cut-off alien place persists. It underpins the rest of the analysis around the local elections. Notice, for instance, the false binary that if Labour is doing well in London it must, by some sort of magical mathematical calculus, be doing badly in the Red Wall.

But London isn’t a detached metropolis, floating above England. It is part of England – not just economically or geographically, but by virtue of its values.

Londoners are proud of the city’s openness and diversity. They’re proud of that sense you get in the city that you can make something of yourself, whoever you are and wherever you come from.

These values did not emerge out of nowhere. They are the result of an English blueprint for a city: one which is free, and unsegregated, and fair. It might not be the form of Englishness favoured by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. But it is a kind of Englishness nonetheless.

For some impossible-to-understand reason, this extraordinary place is now considered at best a separate state and at worst a cultural enemy. These results seem to have exacerbated that.

We’re all the poorer for it. It’s no good for London. And it’s no good for England either.

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