The myth of London exceptionalism

London is not as invulnerable to the appeal of UKIP as commonly reported, finds new research from Eric Kaufmann.

The yawning North-South divide appears to have grown wider, the BBC reports. Some view the rise of UKIP as a symptom of provincial disaffection. Indeed, the purple wave has been widely touted as a rejection of London and its elite. Rod Liddle, in a satirical piece for the Spectator, puts it even more bluntly: ‘it’s not immigrants that UKIP voters hate: it’s London’. Alienation from Westminster, City Bankers and London’s freewheeling diversity is creating two worlds.

Londoners seem equally miffed by their antediluvian country cousins. Cosmopolitan pundits such as Ian Birrell warn that London is ‘threatened by anti-immigration bile and anti-Europe dogma’, with ‘sneering attacks on metropolitan values and modernity’. He views the mansion tax as a stick provincial England is using to beat London and further exploit the city’s wealth. The diverse, global outlook prevailing in the metropolis apparently accounts for its radically different take on Europe, immigration and UKIP.

At first glance, European and local election results reflect this. UKIP won just 7 per cent of the vote in 2014 London local elections compared to 20 per cent in the rest of the country. Faragists collected a slightly more respectable 16.7 per cent of the popular vote in London in the 2014 European elections, against almost a third in the rest of England and Wales.

Can the conventional wisdom be sustained? Is London actually more tolerant? A crack in its reputation appeared when the 2014 Social Integration Commission, chaired by Matthew Taylor, released a report showing London to be markedly more segregated than the rest of the UK. White Londoners in particular were 15 points less integrated with ethnic minorities in London than elsewhere in Britain.

The young, the well-educated and minorities tend to be more open to immigration and Europe and less likely to vote UKIP. Indeed, Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford found the party’s supporters to be 99.4 per cent white, and they are less thick on the ground in London. But if London really is a place apart, its distinctiveness must rest on its international outlook, cultural exchange and atmosphere, not the age, education and ethnic composition of its population. This calls for an apples-to-apples comparison.

Are White British Londoners more accepting of immigration than White British elsewhere? The British Election Study (BES)’s 2015 panel survey asks whether immigration enriches or undermines cultural life. 34.7 per cent of White British outside London say immigration strongly undermines cultural life. But so do 34.4 per cent of White British Londoners. Not much difference there. 44 per cent of White Brits outside London want to leave the EU, but so do 42.3 per cent of White British Londoners. Again, not much in it.

This would suggest that when we adjust for ethnic composition, UKIP support in London isn’t very different. This is clear in figure 1, which shows the city as pretty average among the regions, similar to the South West when we normalise for White British population. Its South East suburban hinterland even begins to look distinctly pro-UKIP. A small share of non-White British support the party, which might inflate London’s figure a touch, but this doesn’t alter the basic pattern.

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A closer look at London and the Southeast reveals four patches of white liberal exceptionalism: Oxford, Cambridge, and parts of North London (Hackney, Islington, Haringey, Camden) and South West London (Richmond, Wandsworth, Hammersmith and Fulham, Southwark, Lambeth). White voters in diverse Luton, the southern stronghold of the English Defence League, and multiethnic Slough, are among the strongest UKIP supporters in the country. As the map shows, Outer London is more fertile for UKIP than the England white average, with particular strength in Outer West and Outer East London. In terms of UKIP-friendliness, White Britons in Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster stand apart from those in Inner London. Evidently not all bankers are cosmopolites.

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Part of the map above is accounted for by educational composition. When we adjust for UKIP’s share among White British voters without qualifications, as we do in figure 3, Londoners are actually more UKIP-friendly than average and the South East emerges as the leading UKIP region.

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Finally, when we control for a fuller range of demographic and attitudinal characteristics, as in figure 4, London and the South East emerge as significantly more likely than the rest of England and Wales to have voted UKIP in 2014, according to the BES.

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Why might a middle-aged anti-immigration Londoner be more likely to vote UKIP than a similar person in Newcastle? One answer Gareth Harris and I found is that whites living in relatively homogeneous neighbourhoods in diverse Local Authorities, or in boroughs ringing diverse metropolitan areas – think Thames Gateway – experience heightened perceptions of ethnic ‘threat’. Jens Rydgren, drawing on the case of the Swedish far right, terms this the ‘halo’ effect.

A second explanation reflects political mobility and switching. Most UKIP voters changed their vote from another party, and therefore are not ultra-loyalists. Floating voters are a distinct group. The BES shows UKIP supporters resemble non-voters and those from other minor parties, such as the Greens, SNP and BNP, in trusting politicians and Westminster less.

Likewise, Understanding Society reveals that supporters of UKIP, as with non-voters and voters for some minor parties, have lower social trust and feel less connected to their neighbours than those backing the big three. London seems to contain a higher proportion of such low-trust, low social-capital individuals, and may therefore be more friendly terrain for upstart parties.

Ninety years ago, the multi-million member, anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan was viewed as a rebellion by rural Protestant America against the immigrant, Catholic-dominated cities. Yet subsequent research showed big-city Protestants were proportionately more keen on the Klan than rural Americans.

Trevor Phillips and Richard Webber recently wrote that two-thirds of White British Londoners voted UKIP or Tory while two-thirds of minorities in the capital plumped for Labour. Rather than London versus the rest, we may see a widening cleft between White British and minority voters which cuts more strongly through the capital than anywhere else.