London bashing won't fix Britain

"London-bashing is just another easy wheeze to avoid hard thinking about the real roots of our problems"
"London-bashing is just another easy wheeze to avoid hard thinking about the real roots of our problems"

By Chaminda Jayanetti

Did you hear the one about London stealing the coal mines? How about the one where Rover shut their Longbridge car plant and opened a new one in Trafalgar Square? Have you ever marvelled at the Shard that was driven down the M40 from Birmingham?

Now that Brexit has shaken everyone's assumptions, the thoughtfully stupid need an explanation and London appears to be it. The British capital's strong economic growth is apparently at the cost of the rest of the country. If only we put some Londoners out of work, joblessness in Belfast would fall. A butterfly effect for the fake news age.

The basis for this trial-by-pundit is that Britain's political institutions are located in London. Given that London is doing well, this must be because politicians are biased towards it because they spend so much time there. After all, what would a post-truth theory be without a conspiracy behind it?


It is true that the country is economically imbalanced - London has grown strongly while parts of Britain's old industrial heartlands have stagnated. But the reasons for this are nothing to do with the fact that MPs are based in Westminster and not Wolverhampton.

London too was once laden with industry. Thatcher transformed the city's old docklands into the centre of her government's great bet for the British economy - finance. Canary Wharf symbolically rose to replace the cranes that once lowered for Churchill.

Thatcher, Blair and Cameron all focused on finance, retail and property instead of manufacturing and industry. Partly this was ideological - neoliberal economics regarded industry as uncompetitive, union-heavy and yesterday's news.

Labour ploughed investment into large northern and Midlands cities, often to stimulate the development of services, retail and culture - leaving regenerated parts of Manchester looking suspiciously like Central London. London was the model, not because it was London but because it had successfully replaced industry with finance and services. The legacy of regeneration of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle is open to debate, but the idea Westminster just ignored these cities is nonsense.

Labour did, however, ignore smaller cities and large towns. The Blair government exuded a palpable belief that the voters who'd swung most strongly to Thatcher were profiting from a Labour retail and housing boom. Labour held Basildon; Labour held the future. Barnsley, Hartlepool, Stoke - seats that Labour had always held, would always hold - seemed to Blairites to embody the past.

Which brings us to David Cameron. Austerity was heavily targeted at the poorest areas of the country, cutting gaping holes in local services and amenities. Was this driven by London? Well, no. Labour won the majority of London seats in both 2010 and 2015. By contrast, Lancashire seats were split evenly between Labour and the Tories in 2015.
In fact, many of London's poorest boroughs - including Islington, for the wilfully ignorant - took big hits from austerity. Here's another myth - that Londoners are all rolling in it. Poverty in London comes with an affordable housing crisis to boot. Unemployment is lower than elsewhere, but Deliveroo deliveries don't pay London rents.

Transport investment is the one card London-bashers can play - a new report found that Londoners receive £1,500 more transport investment per head than those in the North.

It's a legitimate complaint. But it does not follow that politics is biased against the North purely based on uneven transport investment - any more than London's housing crisis shows Westminster is biased against London, rather than reflecting a parliament of homeowners and landlords showing a distinct lack of interest in renters.

And this is the point. If the political institutions of London have a bias, it is not one based on geography. It is based on class. Partly mandated by the sheer expense of living in London, partly by the social networks that dictate many career paths, the higher ranks of politics, officialdom, finance and media are dominated by the upper middle classes. Their instinctive concerns are the concerns of people like them - grammar schools that would sidestep private school fees, housing policies that don't deflate house prices. In the post-Brexit moral panic, the demands of the "white working class" are reduced by middle class guesswork to one solitary word - immigration.

We can't mention class though, so we talk about geography instead. Which brings us to the new fashion - calling for the capital to be moved from London to Manchester or Birmingham. Thoughtful stupidity does not get more stupid than this. It is virtue signalling for middle class liberals who quietly fret that they are "out of touch".

The idea is that by moving key institutions physically closer to the great disillusioned masses beyond the M25, the occupants of those institutions will start paying attention to them. Presumably they think the chancellor of the exchequer will rent a terraced house on an Oldham estate and drive to parliament in Manchester, while the Westminster press lobby snap up cheap housing in Burnley.

Here's what would actually happen. The moment the plan to move the capital to Manchester (for example) is leaked, property speculators will pile in and drive up local house prices, making them rapidly unaffordable for those living there. Tens of thousands (at minimum) of civil servants in central government departments and agencies would have to uproot themselves and their families and move to Greater Manchester, driving house prices up further.

And where would they live? In the middle class areas, of course. They would recreate gentrified London in Manchester, or the Home Counties in the suburbs. They would fill out the expensive new housing developments cropping up around the fashionable parts of the city, and spend their off time in the Northern Quarter. Birds of a feather sip lattes together. Britain's divide is social, not spatial.

They would be as divorced from Wigan and Oldham as they already are from the politically alienated Londoners of Barking and Newham. They would be as far from Hyndburn and Accrington as they currently are from Ukip-friendly Clacton and Thurrock. Durham, South Wales, Lincolnshire - all plenty far away. Cornwall would be even further.

There are things that can be improved. Journalism for instance desperately needs a greater presence outside London.  But London-bashing is just another easy wheeze to avoid hard thinking about the real roots of our problems - the absence of economic models that work for deindustrialised and declining areas, the Oxbridge dominance of our key institutions and political parties' long-standing lack of interest in safe Labour areas.

Recreating middle class silos does not rebuild economies. Skin grafting closed social networks from one patch of turf to another does not open up the corridors of power. And destabilising institutions and the lives of those who work for them does not bring security to anyone else.

We have enough problems as it is. London is not one of them.

Chaminda Jayanetti is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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