How the Hampstead Socialist lost out to the Islington Socialist
Hampstead used to be home of the Labour intelligentsia, but Islington appears to have wrested the title from its north London neighbour.
The term 'Hampstead socialist' or 'Hampstead liberal' has been a slur towards North London’s well-to-do left wing enclaves for decades.
It carries such a strong invocation of the “liberal metropolitan elite” character-type that the phrase was deliberately employed during the last election by none other than David Cameron with his jibe about “the same old condescending, bossy, interfering, we-know-best attitude of the Hampstead socialist down the ages”. His targets were of course the Milibands, who whilst not strictly Hampstead residents are honorary members of this club through their life-long residence of nearby Primrose Hill.
More recently, Labour MP Andy Burnham characterised the ethos of Britain Stronger In Europe, the official campaign to keep Britain in the EU, as “too much Hampstead and not enough Hull”, lamenting the group’s inability to appeal to voters in Labour’s traditional heartlands.
Putting the name-calling aside, it is noteworthy that the small Victorian suburb of Hampstead in particular has been the home of so many of the left’s leading lights. The founders of the Fabian Society lived in a palatial Hampstead residence and Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell was buried just off Hampstead High Street under a grave that is regularly replenished with red flowers. At various times Herbert Asquith (Liberal PM 1908–16), Ramsay MacDonald (Labour PM 1924 and 1929–35) and Michael Foot (Labour Leader 1960–63) have all called Hampstead home. Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Anthony Crosland, Aneurin Bevan, the list goes on.
“As a term, it carries with it greater connotations of high-mindedness and other-worldliness than just ‘champagne socialists’,” Andrew Gimson, former political sketch writer for The Telegraph, tells me.
“There has always been a long line of criticism that the left is populated by quite well-off people” says Dr Ed Rooksby, a politics tutor at Ruskin College. “There is this strange sense that you can’t criticise social injustice if you have a well-off background.”
It may be hard for many younger visitors to imagine now but quirky Hampstead was once considered quite a bohemian place, better known for its connections to artists, musicians and academics than the super rich. The Labour politicians who lived in the area were not millionaires, but part of the left wing intellectual tradition centred around Hampstead that had been making political waves for at least a century by the time Hugh Gaitskell lived there.
“Genteels, academics and journalists could all live there,” Eunice Goes, associate professor at Richmond University tells me. “It was affordable back then, and there was a certain creative disorder about the place, as opposed to the more formulaic areas of central London. That appealed to artists, poets and politicians of particular leanings.”
Friedrich Engels, the philosopher, author, and co-creator of the Communist Manifesto, lived in Primrose Hill during the 1870s, during which time his smart terraced home achieved notoriety as a venue for wine-soaked parties populated by local socialist enthusiasts. “On those puritanical days when no merry men can bear life in London, Engels’s house was open to all, and no one left before 2 or 3 in the morning”, according to August Bebel, an Engels contemporary and German socialist politician.
Elsewhere, the left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm, best known for his lengthy “Age of…” series of 19th century histories, lived on Parliament Hill, as did George Orwell.
Labour’s first prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, lived in a seven bedroom Georgian house off Frognal that went on the market for £7.95 million in 2015. Even at the time of his first premiership in 1924, some of his Labour colleagues disapproved of the apparent largesse of the Hampstead house.
More recent Labour figures have lived a little further out, in the nearby Hampstead Garden Suburb. Although he far preferred to be at his home at St Mary’s on the Scilly Isles, Harold Wilson had a house within Hampstead Garden Suburb, as fellow resident and Labour peer Peter Mandelson recently recalled in an interview with Ham & High.
“I remember in 1964, after the general election, standing on Southway in front of Harold Wilson’s house in a sort of trance,” he explained. “There was a CBS anchorman standing in front of the house and on the other side of the road I stood there looking at him as he spoke into a huge camera. There was such a sense of excitement that our new prime minister was going to start a life at his new residence, Number 10 Downing Street.”
Michael Foot, Labour leader from 1980 to 1983, chose to live in Hampstead proper and became renowned for his walks around the Heath with his cane, and Dizzy, the dog he named after the Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.
With average property prices in Hampstead pushing £1.3 million in 2015, and most flats costing more than £900,000, the area has changed dramatically in the time since Michael Foot was strolling around the Heath.
Last year the Labour peer Lord Watts had his own dig at North London Labourites when he described them as "the London-centric hard-left political class who sit around in their £1 million mansions eating their croissants at breakfast and seeking to lay the foundations for a socialist revolution”. But it wasn’t the residents of Hampstead that Lord Watts had in mind when he made this comment.
Just a mile east of Hampstead, the neighbouring borough of Islington appears to have stolen a march on the home of the Fabians.
Islington is now so closely associated with the politics of Jeremy Corbyn that it can be easy to forget that the area was a crucible for the development of New Labour and for a time seemed to reflect the way the post-Clause-IV moment Labour Party had “grown up”. As Carol Cadwalladr has put it, Islington was synonymous with “the party of sundried tomatoes and polenta and holidays to Tuscany”. Tony and Cherie Blair bought a house in the borough for what today would be considered an extraordinary bargain, just £375,000, at the beginning of Islington’s period of rapid gentrification.
Blair and Brown’s famous conversation where they decided who would run for the party leadership after the death of John Smith, took place at Granita, formerly on Upper Street. Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South and shadow foreign secretary shares her road in Islington with Margaret Hodge, MP and former leader of Islington Council. Jeremy Corbyn has been MP for Islington North since 1983.
While Hampstead was only ever the choice of home for Labour’s great and good, Islington (and to a lesser extent neighbouring Camden and Hackney) has come to be seen as the epicentre of the revolution itself. Corbynistas are often stereotyped as middle-class, high-minded and specifically “sipping lattes in Islington” according to GMB’s leader in Scotland, Gary Smith. But in surveys conducted over the summer by The New Statesmen, Labour’s members were 75% ABC1 voters, 57% degree holders and 15% London dwellers. Middle class perhaps, but the characterisation of Corbynistas as based solely on Upper Street is not wholly true.
Islington has changed far more dramatically than Hampstead in the last 20 years. It is now a staggeringly unequal place, even by London’s standards. By some estimates, it has the fourth-highest child poverty rate in the country and is the 14th most deprived borough overall. The super-wealthy live right alongside the very poor in Georgian and Victorian terraces that would not be out of place in Kensington or Chelsea. Whereas in the 90s shabby Islington was seen as smartening up, today it is iconic of London’s absurd property prices and growing wealth disparity.
Considering all of Islington’s problems, it does seem strange that it is taking on Hampstead’s mantle as the home of our allegedly out of touch political establishment, something I raised with Eunice Goes. "Somebody who lives on a remote Scottish island, are they are more in touch than an MP from Islington? I’m not sure. Perhaps there aren’t as many cappuccino shops on a remote Scottish island. But perhaps there isn’t the same levels of unemployment, of drug addiction, and of knife crime that you might encounter in Islington. There is a certain level of urban violence that the rest of the country isn’t even close to."
Is there anything to be learnt from all this beyond the novelty of Labour’s politicians living in the same areas?
Eunice Goes suggested to me that the sneers against areas such as Hampstead and Islington are part of a wider cynicism about urban-dwelling educated people that has existed for centuries but is becoming more prevalent in our post-factual age, “there is a very long established tradition of anti-intellectualism in England that is more about posturing than reality because there are lots of excellent English intellectuals". He adds: "We’ve gone from that to the claim that to be urban and metropolitan and to enjoy living in a diverse setting is a sign that you are out of touch. London is a global city, and this is what global cities are like."
“A lot of the post-referendum analysis has been about poorer provincial areas voting for Brexit and Londoners voting for Remain. It’s played into this ‘them and us’ type argument” Dr Ed Rooksby suggests. “There is this idea, for people who live outside of London, that London politics is not particularly interested in them. I think that’s a little exaggerated. UKIP have made a lot of this, the idea that established politics is London-based and hates ordinary people who don’t live in London. It’s quite a dangerous idea I think."
What next for north London politics? “It looks as though they’re now moving to Hackney”, says Eunice Goes, as Islington prices out the political culture it has nurtured for the last two decades. And after Hackney? As houses prices in the capital continue to climb, perhaps we can look forward to talking about the cappuccino-drinking, pastry munching socialists of Royal Docks, Neasden and Hounslow in a few years.
All photos by Press Association.