As we approach the General Election on 7 May, the think tank Centre for London looks at the big issues shaping electoral politics in the capital. By Lewis Baston.
London is the most clearly defined region within England, and the only one that has its own regional government. London is an outlier in terms of its economy and demographics, so much so that some see it as almost a city-state with an English hinterland wrapped around it. It has a distinctively liberal, cosmopolitan culture too. To what extent do London’s MPs reflect this difference, or are they merely creatures of their parties, indistinguishable from MPs from anywhere else? We also frequently hear that British politics is London-centric. To what extent is this true?
The capital is well represented among the outgoing coalition Cabinet: five represent London constituencies (Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening, plus Vince Cable and Edward Davey for the Lib Dems). A Labour cabinet would surely contain Harriet Harman, Sadiq Khan and Chuka Umunna from the outset; other London MPs such as Stella Creasy, Steve Reed and Keir Starmer — and surely a rehabilitated Emily Thornberry — will be part of the formula by the end of the Parliament.
Up until now London, curiously given its status as one of the cradles of the Labour movement and its recent warmth towards the Labour Party, has punched below its weight in the leadership of the Labour Party. The last full leader of the party to represent a London constituency was Clement Attlee, although Harriet Harman deputised in summer 2010. Ed Miliband (like John Major) was born in London although he represents a constituency outside the capital.
|Labour leader||Duration of leadership||Background||Constituency|
|Harold Wilson||1963-76||Yorkshire||North West|
|Jim Callaghan||1976-80||South East||Wales|
|Michael Foot||1980-83||South West||Wales|
|Tony Blair||1994-2007||London||North East|
Conservative history has rather more London leaders, including half their post-war Prime Ministers: Thatcher and Heath, plus Macmillan and Churchill who took refuge in the London suburbs after losing seats elsewhere. David Cameron is a thoroughly metropolitan political figure although he grew up in, was educated in, and represents, the Home Counties west of London.
|Conservative leader||Duration of leadership||Background||Constituency|
|Anthony Eden||1955-57||North East||West Midlands|
|Harold Macmillan||1957-63||Scotland/North East||London|
|Edward Heath||1965-75||South East||London|
|Margaret Thatcher||1975-90||East Midlands||London|
|John Major||1990-97||London||East of England|
|Iain Duncan Smith||2001-03||Mixed (born Scotland)||London|
|Michael Howard||2003-05||Wales||South East|
|David Cameron||2005-||South East||South East|
Comparing the above tables shows a striking difference between the two parties. Although leaders of either colour rarely represent their area of birth, the direction of travel (area of birth to constituency) seems to run opposite. Whereas Conservatives have roots from across the country and tend to take up seats in London or the South East, a typical Labour leader will have been born in the South East and will be parachuted in to a constituency in the North of England, Wales or Scotland.
On the more mundane level of representation, to what extent does representing London make a difference? London MPs tend to represent more people than MPs from outside the capital, because the electoral register is less accurate in inner urban areas and particularly so in London. It is likely that the new system of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) will exacerbate the problem (incidentally, go now and register here — and even if you think you’re on the register, check before it’s too late). London MPs also provide constituency services for more EU and foreign citizens than most MPs, and deal with more immigration and asylum cases than most. Although the Isle of Wight has the largest registered electorate of any constituency in the UK, several London MPs represent more actual constituents. In poor areas of London, the pressure is overwhelming, as Oona King’s sobering memoir of being MP for Bethnal Green and Bow 1997-2005 testifies.
There are not many big ‘litmus test’ votes that give one an insight in the personal values and character of MPs above and beyond party allegiance. The last parliament had one clear example: the Second Reading, on 5 February 2013, of the Bill providing for same sex marriage (SSM for short from now).
|Conservative Aye %||Total number of Conservative MPs||Labour Aye %||Total number of Labour MPs|
London MPs voted overwhelmingly for SSM. London Labour MPs were a little more liberal than average, although not quite as pro-SSM as their Yorkshire or East Midland colleagues but rather more so than Scots and Lancastrians. The main London difference is among the Conservatives, more than half of whom voted for SSM. However, the South East as a whole — packed with Conservative MPs — was the main source of Tory votes for SSM even if the proportion was slightly lower. The Conservatives of Sussex were considerably more pro equal marriage than those of London, with 10 voting in favour compared to two against and one who did not vote. Sussex is admittedly one of the more liberal and ‘metropolitan’ bits of the Home Counties, surrounding the gay-friendly city of Brighton & Hove. The most anti-SSM Conservatives are the Welsh contingent, followed by Yorkshire and the North West.
The gay-friendly face of the Conservatives is most apparent in inner London, with only one of their inner MPs (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) departing from the consensus for SSM. Outer London was more divided, most dramatically in Barnet where neighbouring MPs Mike Freer (Finchley & Golders Green, for SSM) and Matthew Offord (Hendon, against) had notably tetchy exchanges on the floor of the Commons. So although there are indications that London MPs are on the whole more liberal than their counterparts nationwide, as with so many facets of London’s character there is a distinction to be made between inner and outer parts of the city.
There are other ways of measuring a distinctive London effect on its MPs. Dan Hartropp, who runs www.sixandtwothrees.com, has analysed the topics on which London MPs chose to speak more than MPs from other parts of the country (discounting ministers). The graph below shows the top 10 debates in which London MPs have been over-represented since 2003, and the number of speeches by London MPs made in each.
Broadly, this shows that London MPs were doing their jobs in keeping an eye on issues of local and regional interest, such as matters to do with Crossrail and Heathrow (given the national importance of these major infrastructure issues it is perhaps unsurprising that London doesn’t dominate too much). London MPs are perhaps more generally internationalist than others, reflected in their interest in Sri Lanka — this could stem from the fact that constituencies in London are more likely to be home to large immigrant communities, some of whom will want their MP to vocalise their stance on particular international issues. The Animal Act discussions indicated on the graph relates to the keeping of antisocial and dangerous dogs, of which the majority of related disputes come from London and other big cities. Londoners’ greater interest in volunteering is less easily explained.
London MPs are more inclined than MPs from elsewhere to talk about social housing; in a debate, admittedly focused on London social housing, there were 160 contributions, of which none were from non-London backbenchers. In contrast, no London backbenchers had anything to say about Welsh governmental arrangements, or — surprisingly — in the debate about bankers’ bonuses and the banking industry.
In the next article, Dan Hartropp looks in more detail at the politics of London housing.
Lewis Baston is a Research Associate at Centre for London and writes on elections, politics and history. He is a frequent commentator for various broadcast, published and online media.
This article has been updated to correct John Smith's birthplace.