From Blair to Corbyn: the changing face of Islington, Labour’s London heartland

Tony Blair

There can’t be many people left in the country who’ve never heard of Jeremy Corbyn.

He’s up there with Calais migrants and Cecil the lion as the story of the summer of 2015. But at dusk in Richmond Crescent, Islington, the time of day when Ocado vans are drawing near and there’s a distant sound of corks being gently eased from bottles, I stop two residents in the street and they look blankly at me when I mention his name. For the past 32 years, Corbyn has been the MP for Islington North, but there’s not even a flicker of recognition. “We’re Canadian,” the man explains. “It doesn’t mean anything to us.”

I’m here because Islington, the borough that nurtured Tony Blair and the New Labour dream, that became synonymous with the new middle class, aspirational Labour party, the party of sundried tomatoes and polenta and holidays to Tuscany, is back in the spotlight. With Corbyn’s emergence as the leadership frontrunner, Islington has found itself, once again, on the frontline of Labour politics. And I’m trying to figure out what has changed in the space of time between Blair and Corbyn. In Richmond Crescent, I have my first clue.

Because if anywhere can be said to have been the heart of the New Labour project, then it’s Richmond Crescent, a street of handsome four-storey, flat-fronted early Victorian houses. This wasn’t just Islington. It was Islington – the mythical media invention, the signifier of how the Labour party had changed; how it had evolved beyond its factionalist past, its years of unelectability.

Even the Canadian couple, off for dinner in one of the many restaurants of nearby Upper Street, know something of the street’s history. “Tony Blair lived right there, didn’t he?” says the man, pointing a few doors down. He did, I say. But then they look blank again when I point out the house of Emily Thornberry, their MP in Islington South (and shadow attorney general until she resigned after tweeting a photo of a white van covered in England flags during the Rochester byelection). A couple of doors past hers is an identical one belonging to Margaret Hodge, the former leader of Islington council and now MP for Barking and Dagenham. “We knew that actually,” says the woman, “because our landlady is her sister.”

Back in 1997 it was a place of middle-class gentrifiers. The Blairs bought their house for £375,000 in 1993, and Emily Thornberry, a barrister like Cherie, tells me she and her family moved into the street on the same day. (“Ours cost £300,000 and didn’t have much of a roof.”) But now, as Loretta Lees, a professor of geography who lives in the north of the borough, tells me, the gentrifiers have been replaced by “super-gentrifiers”. And when I describe the Canadian couple I meet – he works in the City though declines to say as what – she says, “That’s them!” The deregulation of the banks that began under Thatcher with the big bang then picked up pace after 1997 with Gordon Brown’s raft of changes, has brought forth a new demographic in Islington: the global elite.

These new residents, whether British or foreign, says Lees, share certain characteristics: “The UK super-gentrifiers tend to have gone to the same elite private schools and then to Oxford and Cambridge, and move in the same circles. And the Americans and Canadians and so on tend to be the same. They’ve gone to the same elite universities, and often move between London and New York and Hong Kong, so their networks are global.”

The word “gentrification” was coined in 1964 and soon came to be used to describe what was happening in Islington, but the process has never ended. Lees first noticed what she calls super-gentrification in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and then realised it was also going on in London. In the original wave, the stripped-pine pioneers of the 60s and 70s, it was largely liberal lefties who moved back into the inner cities, Lees says, and living among the working class was part of the appeal. “Whereas now you have a super-elite sitting next to marginalised council estates, and the social tectonics are quite different. What does the global elite have in common with someone off the local council estate? Nothing. And they don’t mix.”

I’d hoped to knock on Tony Blair’s front door to see who lives there now, but I can’t: there’s no front door. If you want a symbol of how London has changed since 1997, it’s right there: the entire front of the house has been blocked off with hoardings and the board of a fancy architect. Every Londoner recognises the signs: there’s a super-basement in progress. “Super-basements are very super-gentrification,” says Lees.

The house was last sold in March 2014 for £2.9m. Though since that’s just over a year ago, in the hyper-inflated world of London property, Zoopla now estimates it’s worth £3,425,000. And yet it’s not a road of millionaires. In Islington, rich and poor really do live side by side. Watering his garden, opposite, is Stephen Flanagan, 74, who tells me he rents his flat from the council and points out Emily Thornberry’s and Margaret Hodge’s matching Toyota Priuses parked next to each other. He’s no fan of Thornberry, it turns out, though he’s even less a fan of Hodge. “I’ve lived here for years. And none of them has ever invited me in.”

His neighbour, a thirtysomething lawyer who works at a firm in the City, does say hello, however. She’s living in a shared rented flat, she tells me, but is moving out “because I want to find somewhere cheaper”.

The dominance of the City, the arrival of massive foreign wealth, the hollowing out of the middle class, the transformation of this part of Islington into an area where even corporate lawyers can’t afford the rents – these are all things that have changed since 1997. For the past eight years, Britain has been suffering the consequences of the financial crash, and in Islington, it’s being played out on the streets. It’s where the bankers who presided over the system live side by side with those who are now paying for it: the poor.

But there’s no doubt that many people have done well out of two terms of New Labour and the coalition government that followed. Property owners, in particular; and property owners in London, above all.

But, in Islington, that’s just 31% of the borough’s population. A greater proportion, 42%, live in social housing, and another 27% rent from the private sector. In the public perception, “Islington” is a dog whistle. It symbolises overpriced cappuccinos, loaves that cost a fiver, and the kind of over-entitled metropolitan privilege that makes much of the rest of the country come out in an allergic rash. Private Eye satirises it in its cartoon strip “It’s Grim Up North London”. And many despise what it stands for, and the fact that large parts of the media – the Guardian and Observer, whose office is in the borough, very much included – seem to believe it is the centre of the known universe.

“People think it’s where champagne socialists sit in their £3m townhouses, don’t they?” I say to Kristina Glenn, director of the Cripplegate Foundation, an Islington-based charity. “Well some do,” she says. “There is a portion of the population of whom that’s true.” And then there’s everyone else. And she reels off the stats: “The fourth-highest child poverty in the country. The 14th most deprived borough. A third of children living in overcrowded conditions. Forty per cent of older people living in poverty. The lowest life expectancy in London. The highest number of serious mental health issues in the country. The highest levels of depression in England.”

She draws breath briefly. “And that’s sitting cheek by jowl with a world in which a one-bed flat costs half-a-million pounds and private rents take up 40% of people’s incomes. And it’s in your face, this other world. The shops on Upper Street, and the cafes where coffee costs £4. If you grow up here you know you are never going to walk into that world. It’s a glass wall. And you see it come out in terms of mental health. Stress, anxiety, depression – what is that a reflection of? Why do we have that here? Why do we have the highest levels of male suicide in Britain?”

It’s breathtakingly unequal, Islington, one of the most unequal places in Britain, and becoming more so. Its complaints, its problems, its housing crisis, its soaring levels of mental health issues – all of these suggest something rotten in the heart of the system: crippling, chronic, ever worsening levels of inequality. And maybe this is why what has happened in Islington between Tony Blair becoming leader and the present moment – with the Labour party either staring into the abyss, or finally rediscovering its cojones – really does matter.

Is Islington a bellwether, I ask Glenn. Inequality is rising everywhere, so is this a more exaggerated version of what’s happening in the country as a whole? “I hope not!” she says. And then adds firmly: “I don’t think it’s inevitable.”

The Cripplegate Foundation, which she tells me has been fighting poverty in Islington since 1500, is all about taking action, not just talking about it, and she’s relentlessly positive. “There are things you can do,” she says. You just have to do them.

At Camden town hall in King’s Cross, yards over the border from Islington, on Monday night, I find 1,500 people who think Jeremy Corbyn is the man to do these things. It’s his first central London engagement since his great leap forward in the polls, and I turn up an hour early to make sure I get in. Ha! The queue is 500 yards down Euston Road, and when I turn the corner I discover that’s just the overflow queue for returned tickets. The queue to get in the door is 200 yards further on. And inside, it’s mayhem.

It’s the first time many Westminster lobby correspondents have seen the Corbyn roadshow in action. A deputy political editor who has managed to squeeze through the crush collapses next to me. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” he says. “I covered the entire general election but this is… unbelievable.” Most of the crowd are under 30, and there’s a sense of wild anticipation. “Actually, Nicola Sturgeon’s first breakthrough rally,” he says. “That had the rock music. And the young people. And the religious overtones in the secular setting.”

Religious?

“You know. The enthusiasm. It’s like a revival meeting.”

The hall is packed, as are three overflow halls, all of which Corbyn addresses in turn, and there are still hundreds outside, so he climbs on top of a fire engine belonging to the firemen’s union and talks to them from there. The only comparison in my memory banks is that it’s like when I saw Jagger come on stage at a Stones concert. Jagger in a yellow shirt, with his signature vest peeking through, a row of biros in his top pocket. The roar is deafening.

It’s only then, glancing around at the people cheering from the upper balcony, and others craning in from a window outside, that I realise I’ve been in this room before. On 1 May 1997 I ran out of my flat across the road in Euston, where I was watching the election results on TV with a group of friends, in a state of high excitement, and it was in this chamber that I saw Glenda Jackson being returned to great whoops of joy as MP for Hampstead in the Labour landslide. The atmosphere is not dissimilar. There’s the whiff of gunsmoke in the air: some of the people here are the age I was then, and for them this feels like as much of a change.

Why are you here, I ask 26-year-old Joe Odell. “Because it’s amazing to have someone actually speak to us,” he says. “It feels like, finally, this is our time!”

You need a 66-year-old to speak on your behalf? “It doesn’t matter that he’s 66. It’s not about celebrity. He speaks our language. We just want what our parents had. I’ve graduated with £50,000 of debt. I work for Centrepoint [the homeless charity] and pay £650 a month in rent to live with seven other people. It’s a miserable life. What long-term future do I have in London? ”

He had done a masters in Middle Eastern studies at Soas, and still he considers himself “one of the lucky ones”. He had found work at least, and has been able to move out of his parents’ house in Reading into a shared flat. The big thing about Corbyn, he says, is that he offers hope. “My generation has been silenced. We’re locked out. So many careers are dominated by a small elite of privately-educated people who can afford to do unpaid internships. We want a politician who’s honest. That’s all we want. And to have politics that isn’t being made by a focus group. And that’s why it’s so exciting right now.”

It’s a similar story from Josh Fenton-Thomas, a 26-year-old from Sheffield, who’s just completed a masters at UCL. He previously voted Lib Dem and Green but has joined Labour to vote for Corbyn. “There’s been a lot of scaremongering but what he says really resonates with me.” Miranda Larbi, 25, is another Green. “But everyone in my office is obsessed with Jeremy Corbyn, so they told me to come to this and be Corbynated.” And have you? “I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll see.”

In the great scorecard of winners and losers of the past 15 years, the young are the greatest losers of all. Everyone seems to agree on this, and nobody has done anything about it. Emily Thornberry, Corbyn’s counterpart in Islington South, tells me that “nobody should be left behind”. And she runs through some of the same stats about the borough that Glenn gave me. “We have child poverty worse than Glasgow. There’s this total misconception about what Islington is like.”

Everything, she says, “boils down to housing”. “Housing is about intergenerational justice. It’s the same as what happens when there’s a crisis in a pension fund. The ones who are already in it are OK. They ate all the fish. They use up all the funds. And it’s the new people coming in who pay for it. And, yet, that younger generation is not voting.”

But the Labour party presided over this entire process, I say. There are things it could have done that it didn’t, and things it did that made it so much worse. The Labour party encouraged buy-to-let. “I agree with you,” says Thornberry. “Whenever I saw Gordon, he’d say to me. ‘Yes, I know. Housing. Housing. Housing.’”

“But can’t you see,” I say, “how it sticks in the craw that Tony Blair has come out of this with a property portfolio worth millions? That a third of MPs are buy-to-let landlords?”

There’s a hesitation before she answers, and it’s only afterwards I realise why. According to the Daily Mail, she, too, is a buy-to-letter. “I was brought up on a council estate and my mother lived on benefits, and I ended up doing very well. I bought my own place and one for my mum and now that she’s not there I’ve rented that out. That’s the reality of my life. And I have a depth of experience that I’ve learned from and can bring to bear.”

But that route is now closed. From council flat to Islington townhouse is a preposterous storyline in 2015. And while wealth isn’t a predictor of political sentiment, or an obstacle to it, it’s perhaps not a coincidence that so many politicians of a certain generation – and political commentators – didn’t see the pent-up frustration and lack of hope that has propelled Jeremy Corbyn to the centre stage.

David King, a 22-year-old who works for a housing association and campaigns on behalf of the pressure group PricedOut, lives in the north of the borough and tells me about his flat. “We actually consider ourselves quite lucky because we found this cool web tool called OpenRent, where you don’t pay fees to an agent, but it’s a tiny, slightly damp flat in Archway with single-thickness brick walls, so it’s freezing in winter, and it’s surrounded by tall buildings so has no direct sunlight.

“You’re part of this big London machine where you get a job you could never have got anywhere else, and you have access to these fantastic places and events – and then you look at your bank balance and there’s no money there, and it’s never going to pay you enough to escape this way of life.”

He’s another Corbyn supporter. “He’s so out of date that he’s actually cool. He’s not the old leftwing nutter that people are trying to paint him as. I think he actually believes in the principles of cooperatives, and that’s just another word for the sharing economy that everyone’s always talking about.

Dick Whittington – London’s great Everyman – entered the city near David King’s flat at Archway, I point out, and we mull the point for a while. “It’s the dark side of the meritocracy argument,” he says. “If London is a place where you’re meant to make it and you don’t, how does that make you feel? At my age, people are quite romantic about the hopelessness of it all. It’s the ones in their 30s who are angry or in denial. They don’t want to admit their lack of options. There’s a certain degree of shame.”

And worse. Ruth Hayes of the Islington Law Centre forwards me a case worker’s notes on one of their clients: “B, a 61-year-old, turned up for advice very stressed and upset that his private landlord might unlawfully evict him from his home. B suffered from pain attacks, anxiety, claustrophobia, chronic fatigue, vertigo, high blood pressure, sleep apnoea and diabetes. B had signed an assured shorthold tenancy agreement and recently received a letter from his private landlord’s solicitor asking him to vacate the premises in two months’ time. B had nowhere to go.”

People who are older can cast their minds even further back to a pre-sundried tomato Islington. Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, grew up in the borough and still lives there. (He went abroad at the wrong time, he tells me, and now rents: “I don’t complain about it because I’m lucky to be able to afford to.”) But he has seen the place transform. “It’s happened in my lifetime and it’s just astonishing.”

In the 1970s, when his parents moved in, they were the leading edge of gentrification. There was a pillow factory at the end of the street, he says, and London was believed to be in terminal decline. Portes remembers the 1980s and fills me in on a part of Islington’s history I didn’t know about. It was at the forefront of leftwing politics then too. “It was the epicentre of the SDP. In the early 1980s there were three constituencies in Islington, and all three Islington Labour MPs defected to the SDP in 1981. The battles in the Islington Labour party were very bitter.”

That time could come again, some believe. Many think that Corbyn could split the party in as bitter and contested a way. The Observer’s Nick Cohen is another long-time Islington resident, who moved there in 1987. “I’d got married, I was a reporter, my wife was a manager at John Lewis, and we were still able to buy a flat in Islington within six months.” He’s in the more affluent south of the borough, which takes in Richmond Crescent and the edges of the City, the tech hub at Silicon Roundabout and the parade of fancy chains and restaurants on Upper Street (where Granita once stood, the restaurant that hosted the infamous Blair-Brown non-aggression pact). Islington North, he points out, “is a bit like a south Yorkshire constituency. [Much of it] is very, very poor, and it’s only ever had a Labour MP. It’s only MPs for safe seats who can hold these kinds of positions. It’s like John Redwood on the right, who has a massive majority. If you’re in a marginal seat, you’re desperate for swing leaders. You appreciate your leader’s attempts to compromise.”

Cohen, a veteran observer of Labour politics, isn’t buying what Corbyn is selling. “He’s done lots of disgusting things including sticking his head up the arse of half the tyrants on the planet because he’s in an absolutely safe seat.”

Corbynmania is, in his view, “very narcissistic. It’s people saying, ‘We don’t care if we lose. We just want to feel good about ourselves. It’s identity politics. Your identity comes first, above everything else. It’s not about trying to achieve something.”

But the problems are so huge – in Islington, in the Labour party, in the country – that it’s not hard to see why so many people feel so hopeless about that prospect. Four years ago, Islington council, under its leader, Catherine West, now the MP for nearby Hornsey and Wood Green, set up a groundbreaking “Fairness Commission” and asked Richard Wilkinson, the co-author of The Spirit Level, a seismic study of inequality published in 2009, to help chair it.

“What was interesting was how many people showed up,” he tells me. “We held a series of public meetings and huge numbers wanted to come and tell their stories. They wanted to have their say. I think there’s a very large number of people who normally don’t express opinions but who, when they see some possibility of improvement, or someone who seems to offer something different, the lid comes off. It’s like the 10 million people who watched Mhairi Black’s maiden speech, and the similar number who watched the interview with Russell Brand. There’s a lot of people pissed off with the whole political world.”

There were some results from the commission. The council now pays all its employees the living wage, and when a new chief executive was appointed, it involved a £50,000 pay cut. But the problem is bigger than that. It’s systemic. And what The Spirit Level showed was that inequality makes life worse for everybody. The most unequal countries are the most violent, and have the poorest health, the highest levels of teenage birth and prison populations, and the lowest educational achievements.

“The more inequality we have, the more we seem to judge one another and the more anxious we get,” says Wilkinson. “Everything becomes about status.” And it’s in this context that Islington’s record levels of mental health problems, depression and suicides start making sense. It’s toxic. It’s as if the glossy shops of Upper Street, the bourgeois fleshpots of the metropolitan middle class, are built on a nuclear waste-dump. Later I discover that the gleaming edifice of the Emirates stadium, Arsenal’s home ground, is the literal embodiment of this: it was built on top of a council rubbish dump. And the leisure facilities for the local community promised in its planning application have not materialised yet.

The hidden cost of mental health issues is what Kristina Glenn from the Cripplegate Foundation calls “invisible Islington”. She tells me she goes into businesses to persuade them to donate to a scheme called Islington Giving, “and I get heckled by people because they don’t want to believe it”.

I’d been told by Corbyn’s team that I’d be able to see him at a constituency surgery, but it turns out it’s not happening – although I do get an apologetic email from Corbyn himself at 1.19am on the day of my deadline. I ask Glenn where else would be a good place to hear about the difficulties people are facing. “Step outside your front door,” she says – and she’s right, of course. The Guardian and Observer’s multimillion pound building in Islington – opposite the site for Google’s multimillion pound new building – has the kind of glass walls that she says “young people can see into, but can’t touch”.

“We’re part of the problem?” I ask. “Part of the solution,” she says, because this is the way she talks.

N1 in numbers: snapshots of the borough

■ Islington is London’s second smallest borough in geographical terms. It stretches from Silicon Roundabout in the south to Archway in the north.

■ The average price of a property, according to the Land Register, is £648,290. In the past year, prices have risen by 21%.

■ A host of writers and revolutionaries have called it home: Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Tony Blair and Peter Sellers. Politicians currently living in the area include Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, Emily Thornberry, Margaret Hodge and Neil Kinnock. (Ed Miliband lives just over the border in Camden. Yvette Cooper is in nearby Hackney).

■ City University, London Metropolitan University, Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, the Almeida theatre, Sadler’s Wells and the Guardian Media Group are all in Islington.

■ 42% of Islington residents live in social housing. Of the rest, 31% own their own homes, and 27% rent.

■ The average income of those who own a house is £78,000 a year. For those who live in social housing, it’s £15,000.

■ The tallest building is Lexicon, a 36-storey apartment block designed by Foster and Partners, still being built, where prices start at £750,000 for a one‑bed flat .

■ It’s the 14th most deprived area in the UK ,according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation.

■ More than a third of children  13,600 of them – live in the poverty. As do nearly half of all old people – 40% of them.

■ The borough has the highest level of depression in the country – 13% of all residents suffer from it – and the highest level of psychosis.

■ Men have the lowest life expectancy in London.

Joe Evans

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Carole Cadwalladr, for The Observer on Sunday 9th August 2015 08.00 Europe/London

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