New Labour Islington is no more – it is now an area for Tory-voting bankers
When I grew up in Islington in the 1980s and 90s, there was a reliable election ritual: the bigger the Georgian villa, the more likely the resident barrister was to put up a Labour poster in his sash window. If they weren’t barristers, they were senior Labour politicians. Some were both.
The poster in the window in the rambling terraced house in Canonbury belonged to Charlie Falconer, later lord chancellor. Nearby was Malvern Terrace, home to Brenda Dean, later Lady Dean, former general secretary of the print union Sogat. Next door was Margaret Hodge. A few doors down, at 1 Richmond Crescent, was the spiritual king of fashionable Islington, Tony Blair.
For decades, if a newspaper wanted to sum up bien-pensant thought, a combination of the words ‘sun-dried tomato’, ‘polenta’ and ‘Islington’ did the trick. But no longer.
Labour won Islington South at the election, as it has at every election since 1935. But its status as the home of metropolitan, rucola-munching thought has evaporated. House prices have zoomed out of the range of the left-wing artists and professionals who flocked there in the 70s and 80s. Early Victorian villas, once owned by poets, social workers and film directors, have been bought for £2 million by Conservative-voting bankers.
The centre of the Labour world has moved west, to the cheaper terraces of Kentish Town, Primrose Hill and Dartmouth Park, home to Ed Miliband. Dartmouth Park has all the credentials Islington used to have. There’s a fine selection of stucco-trimmed villas, still in the price range of politicians, writers and actresses; Neil and Glenda Kinnock, Glenda Jackson and Julian Barnes all live there.
The schools campaigner Fiona Millar and her partner, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s old spin doctor, live a little further south, in Gospel Oak. Next door in Kentish Town are Alan Rusbridger, Tessa Jowell and Jon Snow (Karl Marx once lived there, too). Another mile or so west is Primrose Hill, where Ed Miliband grew up; where David Miliband lives in the old Miliband family house. Primrose Hill has an arty-rich-boho cocktail reminiscent of old Islington — Martin Amis, Jude Law, Sienna Miller, Sadie Frost, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin and Friedrich Engels all live or have lived there.
The tide of money sweeping through Islington, now washing away its modish left credentials, first came trickling in 40 years ago. Before then, Upper Street — Islington’s main shopping street — was full of haberdashers, ironmongers and shoe shops. There was barely a single restaurant — our first family lunch at the new Pizza Express on Upper Street in the mid-1980s seemed wildly exotic. The borough had pockets of acute poverty, deepened by severe bomb damage. Even now, there are 13,000 families on the council waiting list for housing and every second child born in the borough is born into poverty.
In the 1960s, the journalists, teachers, architects and publishers started to move in. By the 1980s, that trickle of house-buying money waxed into a flood, provided by even more highly paid professionals, mostly lawyers and bankers. Among them, in 1980, were two newly married barristers — Tony and Cherie Blair, aged 27 and 26 — who bought a three-storey terrace in London Fields, on the fringes of the borough, for £40,000 (it’s now worth around £750,000). In 1986, they sold up, for £80,000, and migrated to upmarket Highbury, buying a four-bedroom Victorian house, for £120,000 (now worth £950,000). And then, in 1993, they avoided paying stamp duty by swapping Stavordale Road for 1 Richmond Crescent in Barnsbury, one of the nicest parts of Islington, paying £375,000 plus the £175,000 wrapped up in the value of the old house.
All the Islington houses lived in by the Blairs are beyond the budgets of haberdashers or ironmongers, and 1 Richmond Crescent — which the Blairs sold in 1997 for £615,000 — is also way beyond the intelligentsia who moved there in the 1960s and 70s, valued at £1.8 million. North London has become acceptable among the super-rich; Cate Blanchett lived for a while in Canonbury Grove.
Thirty years ago, three quarters of properties in the borough were social housing; after Mrs Thatcher’s right-to-buy legislation, that fell to half. Still, for all its zillionaires and right-to-buy homeowners, Islington has one of the highest proportions of council-owned buildings in the country.
The borough has become a place of extreme haves and extreme have-nots. The middle ground, once fertile territory for left-wing politicians, thinkers and activists, has been squeezed out; and those politicians and thinkers have had to find new breeding grounds to plot the rebirth of the Labour party.