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Why London is Labour

A History of Metropolitan Politics, 1900-2020

 

Michael Tichelar

 

Routledge Studies in British Politics

Abingdon: Routledge, 2021.

Hardcover. xx+309 p. ISBN 978-0367175238. £120

 

Reviewed by Roland Quinault

Institute of Historical Research, University of London

 

 

 

   

The title of this book gives a misleading impression that it is a polemical and partisan study. It is, however, a scholarly, thorough and balanced account. Some of the ground has been covered by other historians, including Owen Hatherleyís recent study, Red Metropolis : Socialism and the Government of London. But Tichelarís survey is based on original research and makes use of an extensive range of sources, many not previously used. It deserves a wide readership.

Tichelar begins by pointing out that before the First World War, the Labour movement in London only secured an effective presence in the Metropolis by closely co-operating with radical Liberals in a Progressive Alliance. That was an effective reforming force in the 1890s and early Edwardian era. London was slow to develop an independent Labour Party, partly because Liberal associations were more ready than in parts of the North to accept working class candidates. In some East End constituencies, moreover, the Conservatives attracted working-class support by their opposition to alien immigration. At the 1906 general election Labour candidates were only able to secure two marginal London constituencies: Deptford and Woolwich. The London Labour Party was not established until 1914.

The First World War, however, led to an improvement in Labourís position in London, which contrasted with the divisions and decline of the Liberal Party. The war led to increased government involvement with the economy and society and thus boosted support for Labourís advocacy of nationalisation and social welfare policies. But support for industrial militancy was limited in London and it was Herbert Morrisonís pacific brand of municipal socialism, which flourished in the 1930s and in the decade after the Second World War.

It was only in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that London became closely associated with Left-wing militancy. The key event in that respect was the capture of the Greater London Council by Ken Livingstone and the New Left in 1981. Labourís success in the capital came despite the de-industrialisation of Londonís economy and the decline of the trade unions and the traditional working classes. Its continued strength in London reflected middle-class support for social liberalism at home and non-interventionism abroad. In the twenty-first century Labour has benefitted from the growth of the BAME population in London, which is now a majority in many parts of the capital.

Tichelar ends his survey by concluding that in the future, as in the past, Labour again needs to ally with various interest groups, both in and out of London, in order to retain its hegemony in the metropolis. He says little, however, about how that process might be achieved. Even if it is, it may not secure Labour hegemony in the nation as a whole. We now have a Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who made his reputation as the Mayor of London yet who has consolidated his ascendancy by successfully courting Labour strongholds in the North. Now, as in the past, Londonís politics are intimately bound up with those of the nation as a whole.

 


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