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Opinion

The left’s blind spot: London and regional inequality

Labour has become ideologically and politically detached from the red wall – because its thought-leaders have retreated to the all-consuming capital, writes journalist and author Sam Bright.

“Levelling up” has been etched onto our political psyche over the last few years, by virtue of the verbosity of Boris Johnson. 

Using the Brexit referendum as a springboard, Johnson went into the 2019 General Election pledging to finish what he had started – to “get Brexit done” – and then to improve the fortunes of those who had delivered their defiance against Brussels in 2016. 

Indeed, the modern Johnson political project – spanning from 2016 to the present day – has involved an uncomfortable pact with former industrial towns and cities, whose inhabitants entrusted an Old Etonian with their anti-establishment yearnings. It now costs some £50,000 a-year to attend Eton – nearly twice the average annual full-time salary in Wakefield, a ‘red wall’ seat that flipped to the Tories in 2019.

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This pact has also been uncomfortable in practice, as Johnson has done little to fulfil his levelling up pledges, beyond his rhetorical fervour. In a recent report, the Institute for Government concluded that the government’s 12 levelling up missions – stipulated in its white paper – will not have a positive impact on regional inequality.

The Institute said that “only four of the 12 missions are clear, ambitious and have appropriate metrics – outcomes the government will measure to demonstrate progress towards its 2030 target”.

However, despite the prime minister’s increasingly hollow pontification and a galling disparity between his lived experiences and those who inhabit the red wall, the left has been floundering even more comically on the issue of regional inequality.

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And it has been comical. For a movement that claims to loath inequality and injustice, Labour’s vain attempt to prevent the desecration of its political heartlands has been a study in absurdist self-sabotage. 

The party’s 2019 election manifesto, for example, said that: “Years of under-investment and neglect by Westminster have left too many communities feeling powerless and too many areas left behind with low-quality jobs, weak productivity and slow growth.”

This phrasing betrays the distance of the Labour Party from its former industrial heartlands – discussing the plight of ordinary people using abstractions like “productivity” and “growth” – laced with condescension. If they were asked to name the lowest-quality job in Britain, I’d bet that ‘Labour Party leader’ would be mentioned frequently by voters in red wall areas. 

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This has happened – Labour has become ideologically and politically detached from the red wall – because its thought-leaders have retreated to the all-consuming capital, a place that is radically different from the rest of Britain. 

London’s output is between 30 per cent and 50 per cent greater than the rest of the country, its property prices are roughly double the England-wide average – incubating disproportionate levels of relative poverty alongside vast amounts of landlord wealth – while poor kids in the capital are twice as likely to attend university as their socioeconomic peers in the north.

Yet, London is now the site of left-wing politics. Traditional routes into the Labour movement have been curtailed, Westminster being the only available finishing school for future left-wing leaders. The highest-ranking advisors, politicians, union leaders, media outlets, campaign groups and think tanks have amassed in London, recruiting from the pool of people who are able to live and work in the city.

And as London offers a stage for left-wing debate – and acts as the epicentre of its political successes – the capital and its excesses have been stoically defended by the Labour movement, provoking resentment among red wall areas that are rightfully spiteful of the capital’s lofty status in national life.

Previous avenues into the party have fallen into disrepair, including the trail leading through the trade union movement, which used to be an important sponsor of regional interests in the Labour Party. Local union branches are no longer the nexus of political action on the left, and have instead been supplanted by London-based forums. 

“The strength of the trade unions in the 1960s and 1970s meant a production line of talent from the regions being supported to enter local government and then into Parliament,” Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham tells me, in an interview for Fortess London. “And I think in the era that I entered politics, that had really changed. We were looking much more at a metropolitan class that knew how to navigate the system.”

Aside from Burnham, there are consequently few senior figures in the current Labour Party with the background and ideological convictions to reverse the movement’s decades-long decline in the red wall.

Even competing against an Old Etonian former mayor of London, Labour has seemed impervious to the needs of former industrial areas – confined to self-captivity in the capital, slowly wandering into the electoral wilderness.

Fortress London: Why We Need to Save the Country From Its Capital by Sam Bright is published by HarperNorth on May 10.

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