In the 2016 EU referendum, London markedly bucked the English trend. The capital voted by 59.9 per cent to remain, in stark contrast to England outside London which voted by 55.4 per cent to leave.
For some this was confirmation that, politically, London is a “place apart” from England. But, other than this work by NatCen, there has been little empirical analysis of the evidence. So, for my Master’s dissertation, I decided to take an in-depth look at the political attitudes of Londoners, using polling data from the British Election Study (March 2019).
London vs England
The data reveals that Londoners exhibit widely different political attitudes to the English on a number of issues. On left-right questions, the capital’s residents are more likely to self-identify as left-wing. On open-closed ones, Londoners are less likely to identify as authoritarian. Londoners are also significantly more positive about immigration.
In terms of party support, Londoners are more averse towards the Conservatives, and more favourable to Labour. On leaders, Londoners are significantly more disapproving of Boris Johnson, and less hostile towards Jeremy Corbyn. On national identity, Londoners are much less likely to identify as English.
Regarding Brexit, a majority of the capital’s residents support holding a second referendum. And in a rerun of the 2016 vote, over two-thirds of Londoners would back remain. On the choice between maintaining access to the single market versus controlling immigration, Londoners are much more likely to prefer the former.
When I empirically compared the political attitudes of Londoners with the English across 20 variables (left-right, open-closed, Brexit, parties & leaders), I found statistically significant differences on all variables tested. In sum, Londoners hold political opinions totally unlike those of the English.
The rural-urban divide
In recent years, there has been a growing rural-urban division in political attitudes across the Western world, as seen with Brexit and the elections of Trump and Macron. So it may be the case that London’s political divergence just reflects wider UK rural-urban divisions. One must remember that London was not the only English city to back remain in June 2016.
To test this, I compared London’s political attitudes with those of six major English urban areas. Whilst some similarities are seen, on certain issues – immigration, Europe and national identity – Londoners hold views unique even to these other urban areas. So, London’s divergence goes beyond the rural-urban divide.
Explaining the divide
So what explains the political divide seen between capital and country? There are two main explanations: demographics – Londoners are younger, more diverse and better educated; and geography – Londoners have greater positive contact with immigrants and mix more among people with liberal attitudes.
To test which of these explain the divide, I conducted regression analysis on support for remaining in the EU. I found that, even after controlling for its demographics, Londoners are more likely to vote remain in a second referendum relative to an English person. This suggests that both demographic and geographic factors help to explain London’s divergent views.
What does this all mean?
The evidence is clear. London’s political attitudes are significantly different to those of the population of England. Londoners are more liberal, tolerant and outward looking.
These findings add clout to the calls for greater devolution of powers to the capital. London should be allowed to diverge from England, where necessary – especially on Brexit. Most Londoners do not want it, and it is likely to detrimentally impact the city. LSE’s Tony Travers has even talked of the emergence of a “London nationalism”, if Londoners felt they were being wrongly treated on Brexit. So policy-makers, please take heed and mind the gap.
Chujan Sivathasan is a masters student at Loughborough University.
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