Well, well, well. A Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.
Who’d have thought it possible, eh?
Well....me, for one.
It was clear Clegg was not to be trusted. But millions out there – probably a substantial number of you reading this now – were seduced. It will be interesting to see whether you ever vote Lib Dem again. My hunch is no. So, while throwing that historic party into the limelight for once, this election may also have destroyed the Liberal Democrats and all they have ever stood for.
My brother’s mantra throughout the election campaigns “once a Tory always a Tory”, referred to Clegg’s time as Chairman of the Conservative Association at Cambridge and his days lobbying for the Tories in the European Parliament. Leopards do not change their spots.
What words, one wonders, did Cameron and Clegg (two blue blooded aristocrats who called for change in British politics and ousted a hard working, Minister’s son from Kirkcaldy) exchange whilst shaking hands outside Downing Street as the photographers clicked and flashed? Probably something about crushing the proletariat…
It’s enough to make you turn to anarchy. Or at least communism. It’s enough to make you want to emigrate. In fact, I write this week’s London Loves in Monaco; the heartland and veritable symbol of non-dom tax avoidance. The kind of place Lord Ashcroft spends most of his time, whilst pouring his fortune into a Tory campaign to govern a country he never sets foot in.
But how did London fare in the election, and where does it sit in the wider scheme of British politics?
Vote-wise, London is always an oddity. Unlike the metropolitan centres of the North West, Yorkshire and Scotland which are staunchly 100% Labour, London constituencies tend to swing from red to blue regularly; with a bit of yellow cropping up here and there to spoil the pretty pattern. Even overtly partisan boroughs, like Islington – where locals for years punished Labour and Margaret Hodge for the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the local authority’s social services department from the 1970s-90s – can suddenly swing from Lib Dem back to Labour. Or Haringey council, a perpetual Labour heartland, turning yellow. Why? Who really knows? Except to say these occurrences are highly localised and often linked to changing demographics (influxes of affluent professionals and exoduses of traditional constituents).
It so often goes beyond tribalism and comes down to the character or celebrity of the local MPs. A Kate Hoey in Vauxhall or a David Lammy in Tottenham, for example, tends to guarantee a vote for their powerful, visible presence and representation within a community. Previously, heavyweight figures like Margaret Thatcher in Finchley or Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate commanded similar awe.
There are also some generic political rules in London’s geography. Outer London suburbs like Bromley or Twickenham tend to be Conservative, populated as they are by a higher proportion of bigots and city bankers. While inner city wards like Hackney or Camberwell, with poorer, ethnically diverse communities feel more protected by Labour’s enduring commitment to social equality.
It was these inner London communities who fostered and cherished the GLC in the 80s. Livingstone’s Greater London Council was important for many reasons, but above all for giving a voice to the disenfranchised who suffered under Thatcher’s selling off of council houses and poll taxes that punished those on the lowest incomes in the poorest boroughs. As a child I was taken through London’s streets on GLC marches and Ban the Bomb protests. I wasn’t really aware of the societal context of those movements at the time but in retrospect I am deeply proud that my mother introduced us, so young, to these fundamentally important socialist ethics.
I remember a time when the Socialist Worker newspaper was vociferously and militantly sold in many public places. Nowadays, it seems confined to Crouch End Broadway or Mare Street for risk of causing offence elsewhere.
The times changed in 1997 after the Canonbury alliance of Blair and Brown contrived their masterplan in that restaurant on Upper St. No longer, it seemed, was there a need to protest or to be overtly Marxist. The good guys were finally in power, bringing with them Kinnock’s old school socialism heavily disguised as centre-left capitalism. I, more than most, felt the enormity of the celebratory mood of that day in May; even though, at 17, I was frustratingly too young to vote. Born in 1979 – the year Thatcher came to power – I lived under a Tory regime for my entire youth witnessing a London scarred by poll tax riots and a GLC smashed, taking for granted the cardboard city under Waterloo Bridge. It’s easy to forget how bad things were under Thatcher and ignore all the good the Labour party has done to improve this country. But, believe me, under Cameron and his sham coalition, you will soon feel that polluted tide rolling back in and lapping at your feet.
Yes the Labour party made mistakes. I worked at Parliament in 2003 when virtually every MP in the Commons – excepting some Lib Dems – voted to support Bush’s invasion of Iraq. And Labour is still now being punished by the electorate for that gruesome mistake, even though the vast majority of the same electorate, regrettably myself included, did not object to the war at the time. By punishing Labour, the electorate has welcomed in something much worse that we must all now live with for five years or longer.
But, if you ever feel disillusioned about politics, my advice is this: take a stroll down Whitehall, past the stern grey stone of the ministries, the cabinet office and Downing Street, past the Treasury and Foreign Office to Parliament Square, to the seat of government and breathe in the air of democratic British politics. Yes, London may be resented by many parts of the country for ruling from afar, detached from the reality of life in Plymouth or Redcar. Indeed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recognised this and took political action. But the fact remains; this is where your votes count. Everything that is constitutionally, legislatively, legally and politically decided is done so in these historic buildings. Our position in the world is overseen here, the laws of the land battled over in those two small chambers with green or red seats. It is inspiring.
And if you seek political inspiration on a more humble scale, then take the example of Barking & Dagenham; for too long plagued with the tag of being a racist borough. In the 2010 general and local elections here the BNP led by Nick Griffin held 12 council seats. Not only was Griffin roundly trounced and told to take his fascist politics elsewhere, but every single BNP councillor lost their seat in the council. Local activists, including the tireless John Cruddas and Billy Bragg, joined the local community – the people of this area stood up, rallied and smashed the BNP.
Well done Barking & Dagenham. London is proud of you.