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.
The politics of the United Kingdom is fragmenting. There are no parties that have real national reach any more. The fault lines are clearest when looking at the political systems of Northern Ireland and Scotland — where the SNP emerged as a strong force in the late 1960s and now dominates the country’s political scene. Wales has Plaid Cymru, which has made a less explosive impact but still needs to be taken seriously across Wales. England has started to dissolve into several distinct regional political configurations, with an urban North contested between Labour and UKIP, the rural South West fought between Conservative, Liberal Democrat and UKIP and enclaves across the country where politics involves the contending forces of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green (including much of inner London).
There are also nascent regionalist political organisations within England. The oldest-established is Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall, which has had sporadic success in local elections and is standing in all six Cornish seats. The Wessex Regionalists have been in business since 1974 and are standing one candidate (against David Cameron in Witney). The regionalist scene has recently been joined by the North East Party, founded by former Labour MP Hilton Dawson, and Yorkshire First.
The paradox is that London is the only English region with its own elected government, the only one that has a regional tier of government and it has a lively regional media landscape involving newspapers, broadcast media and of course online; but it is also the English region which seems to have the strongest attachment to the major parties and which does not have even the glimmer of a London Nationalist Party on the horizon. The stock reply from most places beyond the M25 would be ‘But they’re ALL London parties!’.
There is one specifically London party in the Electoral Commission’s Register of Political Parties — the Alliance for London. It was founded in April 2015 by two pro-European ex-Conservatives, Dirk Hazell and Brendan Donnelly, who were involved in the Four Freedoms Party which contested the European Parliament elections in the UK as the affiliate of the main centre-right pan-European European People’s Party. Details of what the Alliance for London stands for are sparse, but its choice of slogans suggests that like Four Freedoms it is a pro-European, free market party. It is not standing candidates in the General Election but might chance its arm at the London Mayor and Assembly elections in 2016. The Londonist Party is not yet registered...
To what extent, though, are the major parties targeting London with specific policies? Manifestos have tended to grow longer and more detailed over time; those of 1945 for instance, despite their momentous contents, are written with breezy clarity and ambition. As detail has increased, so has the segmentation of the appeal: commitments specifically aimed at London were unusual before the 1980s, although naturally aspects of the parties’ proposals have always had more impact in London than elsewhere — notably on public transport, race relations and housing — and formed part of the parties’ constituency campaigning (see this brief guide to the most London-relevant manifesto policies of 2015 from CityMetric). But even Labour’s notoriously prolix effort of 1983 had nothing specifically for London.
The change came with the Conservatives’ offering that election, that promised the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC) — an unsuccessful attempt to close down Ken Livingstone’s political career. The GLC’s creative resistance to abolition did much in itself to create a London political sphere, and after the London-wide tier of local government ceased to exist there was a vacuum which was filled, temporarily, by the national parties. Labour promised in 1992 and 1997 to reintroduce London regional government. The Conservatives, lacking such an intention, instead added — for the first time in recent history — London-specific sections to their full manifesto in 1992. These included a private-sector led forum (‘London 2000 Initiative’) to promote London internationally, a Cabinet subcommittee for London, and a London Transport Minister. In 1997, again as an alternative to restoring Londonwide regional government, they went further and published a separate ‘Manifesto for London’.
The last major party manifesto to promise to restructure London government was the Conservative document in 2005, which would have changed the electoral system for the Assembly (to First Past the Post) and given it power to amend the Mayor’s budgets with a simple rather than two-thirds majority. This was, for some reason that might possibly be related to the Conservatives winning the Mayoralty in 2008, dropped for the 2010 manifesto (had the 2005 proposal been legislated, a Labour majority Assembly would have been effectively in power alongside Boris Johnson since 2012).
With the London government system having bedded in by 2010 and the Olympics project underway, nobody wanted to go back to reinventing the institutions or even — as the Conservatives had been obliged to do — to put micro-management of London’s regional politics in their national manifestos. The partial exception is for major infrastructure projects — particularly airport expansion, which was put off yet again in 2010.
The 2015 manifestos, by their very silence, show that the London government system has settled down. With European uncertainty, devo-max, devo-Manc, the unstable finances of Northern Ireland and English local government, the English question at Westminster, the transfer of further powers to Wales... London, therefore, is viewed as being relatively stable as a component of the UK constitution. Though the next government will certainly be aware of the mood for local devolution building across the UK's cities, including the capital.
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.
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