Since the start of the pandemic, people have been fleeing London. What exactly that means for the post-COVID capital is unclear – but it might not be a bad thing, according to Owen Hatherley, author of Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, a new book that charts the history of left-wing politics in the city, from the reformist 1920s through the much-mythologised heyday of the 1980s’ Greater London Council and the successes and failures of the present.
Red Metropolis makes the argument that reducing London’s size and economic power would make it a better place to live. Under an economic system that needs to believe perpetual growth is a good thing, this seems like a radical notion. “I don't think you can really run London as a fair city at current levels of growth,” says Hatherley. “In the 1940s, there was a specific policy of reducing London, reducing its power and its size. London lost about 2 million people between the 40s and 80s.”
“At the beginning of the pandemic,” he says, “I sat on the balcony of my ex-council flat in Camberwell and watched all these people being picked up in big cars and driven off back to Guildford. I thought, ‘Oh, this is all going a bit Escape from New York… all these people are going to fuck off.’ And that would have quite positive effects for London’s long-term affordability.”
We are already beginning to see the effects of this. In October, it was reported that private rents in London had plummeted by 34 percent; the less demand there is for housing, the cheaper it becomes.
For some, the London exodus will prove temporary, but plenty more will not be returning. Many coronavirus evacuees have been spoiled by cheaper rent elsewhere, or bigger flats, fewer housemates and gardens, and realised that they never liked living in London that much in the first place.
There’s fairly good reason to believe that working from home will continue after the pandemic – research suggests workers are just as productive at their kitchen tables – and if it does, so too might the trend of Londoners who only live in the capital for work leaving for elsewhere.
“I think a lot of people who don’t like [London] live here,” says Hatherley. “But Leeds is over there. There are loads of smaller cities in the UK that have all the things they want. You know, you can have a ridiculous burger with a wooden spike in it in Leeds. You can have craft IPAs in Leeds. Just go there!”
Reading Red Metropolis after Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party – which felt like a particularly bleak moment for the British left – I found it a consoling and hopeful read. It’s clear-sighted about the challenges facing contemporary London, but also a reminder of times when left-wing institutions held power and achieved great things.
As well as its municipal history, Hatherley’s book examines the various ways that London could be improved for the ordinary people who live there – lessons which, in many cases, could also be applied to the UK’s other urban centres.
One of the issues the book considers is that London has no tax-raising powers of its own, and is therefore constrained by Westminster in terms of what it can spend. To enact progressive legislation, Hatherley argues, London needs revenue streams that are independent of the Conservative Party.
“The example that everyone always talks about is Preston,” he says, “which decided to create an internal, confined within the ring-road economy, based on its university, hospitals and publicly funded institutions, and funding cooperatives within that. As a strategy to revive the economy of a depressed city in the north, that’s worked very well. But there’s been very little attempt at it in London, mainly because there is this enormous resource that councils can draw upon, which is the land they own.”
In the book, Hatherley describes the wealth of property in London as a kind of “resource curse”. “If you sell or speculate on land in a city like this, where it’s worth so much, you appear to have a licence to print money,” he says. “But the problem is that you no longer have the asset after you've sold it. Lots of councils in London have spent a lot of the last few years buying back their own assets, usually at very inflated prices.
“As a long-term strategy, it's stupid. There’s certain basic things every council should and shouldn’t do: do not sell your land, do not demolish your council housing. Beyond that, they are significantly limited. But they are less limited than the rest of the country.”
COVID-19 may well have positive outcomes when it comes to London’s affordability, but even then, the scale of the city’s housing crisis is so severe that it will take a lot more than a few software engineers moving to Sheffield to remedy it. We need political solutions. So: how can London – which voted overwhelmingly for Labour in 2019 – claw back some power from the Tories?
One answer could be found in greater cooperation between the capital and the cities of the north.
“Early on [in 2020], I thought that the government would go toe-to-toe with local authorities,” says Hatherley, “because every big city in the country is run by Labour.
You could see that in the negotiations over TfL in London – when the government threatened to take control of the transport body unless Sadiq Khan capitulated to punitive measures, including fare increases – and in Greater Manchester before it went into Tier 3, when the Tories imposed tough lockdown measures on the city despite non-partisan protests from its local politicians.
“The [government] obviously wanted that confrontation, and what's interesting is that they backed down on both. [Andy] Burnham and [Sadiq] Khan put up a fight and won those particular arguments, which suggests this government is not as powerful as it thinks it is. There will be loads of attacks like that, particularly as the pandemic ends.”
As well as organising at a local level, one of the best hopes the left has is solidarity between different regions, something that flies in the face of the “London vs the North” narrative, which is – understandably – so dominant in the UK. In reality, London and the cities of the North have a lot of shared interests.
“Fights are going to happen,” Hatherley continues. “And we will need a lot of concerted action: the Greater London Authority will have to work quite closely with Greater Manchester and the Welsh Assembly. There will need to be a certain amount of agreed strategies.” If the Tories attempt to curtail the power and funding of local authorities, which seems plausible, this would represent an opportunity for London councils to band together with the rest of the UK.
“Rather than trying to be too clever, I think the main goal should be trying to act as a wall against things getting worse,” says Hatherley. “We need to focus on conserving what there actually is, and building support.”
One historical example of this intra-regional solidarity is the “rate-capping rebellion” in the 1980s, when a group of left-wing councils banded together in an attempt to force Thatcher from withdrawing local council funding. “Eventually, this concerted front was gradually broken down,” says Owen, “but there were a few years of genuine unity there.”
In terms of “building support” for left-wing policies in the capital, we would do well to look at the Greater London Council in the 1980s, which was demonised in the right-wing press at the time as emblematic of “the loony left”. It earned this reputation in large part through being, as its described in Red Metropolis, “gloriously, explicitly, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-imperialist, anti-sexist”.
“One of the things I find very inspiring about the GLC is that they went to the people and built up a wave of support,” says Hatherley. “They had books and propaganda and pamphlets and festivals and concerts, and huge public events.” The GLC, as Red Metropolis notes, actually funded and released, via its own label, a reggae track called “Kill the Police Bill”, which was aimed at a piece of racist legislation that would have disproportionately targeted young Black people. Your move, Sadiq.
The left is undeniably in bad shape at the moment, but there are reasons to be optimistic that productive movements will emerge in future, in London and elsewhere.
“The most interesting things in London’s local government always happen when you've got a social movement working together with a social democratic political machine,” says Hatherley. “And that’s when it’s been interesting – the 1920s and 30s and the 80s, when that kind of enthusiasm and grassroots activism has got together with the people that can build things. That’s the alliance you need, and I think it can be imagined in London now. The forces are there.”