A night of Conservative and SNP success has left the other parties reeling, with leaders of the three ‘losing’ parties – Labour, the Lib Dems and UKIP – all resigning. The election results have bought considerable joy for the Tories, but have also rammed home just how fragmented our national politics is becoming: not just in the SNP tidal wave in Scotland, but in London, now as an enclave of Labour support amidst the Conservative swing of southern England.
Many saw this as the election where the tradition of two-party politics would break down, but the London political map is now an old fashioned two-party pattern of blue and red. As it stands, Labour have a stronghold in London, which, in the light of further regionalised and splintered politics, could be key to their direction under their next leadership.
Labour had great hopes for the capital as central to its return government. And despite taking 45 of the capital’s 73 seats (up seven on their result in 2010), the partly will be will be disappointed with having taken just three Tory seats in London (Enfield North, Ilford North and Brentford & Isleworth). The majority of its gains came at the expense of the Lib Dems.
The Conservatives will be delighted with their London showing. They have withheld Labour’s best efforts, holding most of their marginals, and, when their own gains from the Lib Dems are taken into account, losing just one seat. It is also worth noting that, as expected, Boris Johnson sails back into parliament with a huge lead in Uxbridge – leaving the capital with a part time mayor.
The big story in the capital, as across the country, is the virtual evisceration of the Liberal Democrats. The party lost six seats in London including some of their most high profile names; former ministers Lynne Featherstone, Ed Davey and Paul Burstow all fall, as do party grandees Vince Cable and Simon Hughes. Former Lib Dem seats were fairly evenly split between the bigger parties, leaving only Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington), perhaps their least well known London MP, standing.
And what of UKIP and the Greens? Neither picked up any seats. UKIP struggles for purchase in London and has actively marketed itself as an alternative to metropolitan elites, so it is unsurprising that it performed worse in the capital than its national average.
The Greens did moderately well in London but failed to seriously challenge for seats, though they had a good number of third places. At time of writing, the 13% they picked up in Lewisham Deptford is their second strongest showing anywhere in the country; and the party reached 8-10% in many London seats. Nonetheless, they will be disappointed not to have picked up more of the disaffected former Lib Dem vote.
So what does all this mean for the future of London politics? For one thing, it rams home how differently London votes compared to most of the rest of the country. A disastrous night for Labour on the national level has not borne out in the capital; they haven’t had the huge London success story they would have liked, but they have made gains all the same, in stark contrast to major losses elsewhere.
That said, the catastrophic collapse of the Lib Dems in London follows the national narrative: it might be argued that the Lib Dems’ decline could see the end of London as a three-party city. But parties in opposition often tend to do better away from general elections: we can expect their performance to improve, if not in next year’s mayoral contest, then in the local and European elections in the years to come. We can also expect the Greens and UKIP to do better on this front.
The significant point to take away is that, having lost its Scottish seats to the SNP, many of which were rural, we could be seeing the emergence of Labour as a truly urban party. Along with Wales, the huge majority of Labour’s core vote now resides with London and the cities of northern England. Without its traditional Scottish seats, significant questions arise as to whether Labour can truly be more than an urban party. Its real challenge is to build on this base in the big cities and make inroads into more rural areas in England.
Despite the two-party split of seats in London, the capital is more politically diverse than it has been in previous decades. As in the rest of the country, absolute majorities in London seats are rare, and far less reliable than they might have been in previous decades.
A new term in opposition with a new leadership allows a period of reinvention. We could see Labour consolidate support among its urban electorate by defining itself as the party for cities – but even with most UK cities growing, it is difficult to see how they could do so without resigning themselves to becoming a minority party.
At the beginning of this electoral cycle Labour attempted to mark themselves out as a One Nation party for all. But if national politics is to further fragment, they will have their work cut out in attempting to reach beyond their core urban vote.
Ed Hickey is external affairs officer at the Centre for London.
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