Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Theresa May’s Conservatives received a shocking drubbing in the U.K. elections. The results from one affluent London enclave offer a clue about why.
It’s been an extremely dramatic election night across the U.K., where Theresa May’s Conservative Party defied expectations by losing its majority, albeit not as yet its ability to form a government. Over a night where Conservatives unexpectedly lost seat after seat, one district stood out even more than the others: the small but incredibly wealthy London district of Kensington. It’s thanks to Kensington, the richest constituency in Britain, that a result can’t fully be called yet. After two botched counts during the night, polling staff were exhausted that they need a rest before recounting this afternoon. Finally, this evening, the constituency was definitively declared for Labour.* Clearly, something incredible has happened.
The richest cluster of neighborhoods in Europe has just for the first time in its history voted in an MP from the center-left Labour Party. The last, now-rejected count found Labour just 35 votes ahead, a first for an area whose electoral boundaries have shifted but never yet returned anyone but a Conservative to Parliament.
It may be understandably hard for an American reader to understand how seismic this shift is. The U.K.’s Labour Party, which first rose to prominence as an explicitly socialist party in the 1920s, has never had much of a foothold with the old guard that Kensington is associated with. It’s historically been to the left of U.S. Democrats, a position it has returned to under current leader Jeremy Corbyn, who's stood on a platform of nationalizing railways and postal services and abolishing university fees. This isn’t like citizens of the Upper East Side or Bel Air cheerleading for Hillary. A better example: Imagine the affluent Dallas enclave of Highland Park turning out big for Bernie Sanders. It’s like raising the red flag over Downton Abbey.
So how on earth did it ever get this close? The answers say as much about the way central London has been hollowed out by hyper-gentrification as they do about the current direction of British politics.
That’s because, despite its wealth, Kensington is one of the most drastically unequal areas in all of Britain. In the south of the district lies some of the world’s most eye-wateringly precious real estate, including the world’s most expensive apartment, valued at £75 million, as well as Princess Diana’s former home at Kensington Palace. Behind main drags lined with boutiques and department stores lie streets of lavish look-but-don’t-touch Italianate townhouses, places where security cameras whirr behind strategically placed ornamental orange trees.
How could such an area opt for a Labour MP? It’s highly unlikely that this is a case of radical chic, with mansion owners dabbling in electoral socialism as a way of spicing up lives jaded by abundance. One factor may be that the area’s Conservative MP voted to leave the EU, while her constituents overwhelmingly voted to Remain. (These are globe-trotting, affluent people with lots of business ties to European countries.) There’s another, more striking factor that’s likely in play, however—it’s possible these wealthier residents weren’t even there.
We have heard much about how hollowed out London’s wealthiest neighborhoods have become. Homes in areas like Kensington are often treated as deposit boxes for absentee owners, who sweep through town occasionally on their way from New York, Moscow, or Abu Dhabi but rarely put down roots. Even British residents (such as this woman with a controversial taste in paint) are as frequently to be found in country districts like The Cotswolds as in London itself. This spike in semi-empty properties has given the area a sort of sparkling spookiness. Walk down many streets during an unfashionable month like March and, when no cars are passing, all your hear is the clop-clop of your own heels on the sidewalk.
The residents behind the doors of Kensington’s rows of lavish Victorians may not have voted Conservative because they are not eligible to vote in Britain or are too disconnected from British politics by wealth and habit to care overly about who represents a place they merely breeze through. That means that Kensington’s electoral decisions are increasingly being made by those who remain in the district full-time, who might as well be living on a completely different planet.
In the area’s northern reaches, it’s a different story. A place where pretty Victorian streets give way densely populated public housing (including Brutalist icon the Trellick Tower) this area doesn’t look at all bad, and is even somewhat chi-chi in patches. Much of it is still populated by an ethnically diverse range of residents who, in austerity-hit Britain, are having a very tough time indeed. Their homes may be located within 15 minutes walk of some of the world’s wealthiest citizens, but poorer residents’ access to good jobs and (beyond public housing tenancies guarded like Fabergé eggs) affordable housing is limited and getting worse. A local councillor here once told me that the district’s poorest ward had a male life expectancy of just 63. It can be bleak living on a low income in a far-flung, forgotten town. Doing so on the threshold of such extravagant wealth might feasibly be even bleaker.
The political storm that flipped Kensington is happening on a wider scale across the U.K.; Britain is reeling from class, regional, and national divisions, having severed itself from the EU and gone through an exceptionally bumpy few years of political turmoil. Every vote since (and including) the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence has defied expectations—and there have already been two general elections plus the Brexit referendum since then. As Britain goes through this identity crisis, there’s a sense that the country’s public life and economy are distressingly disjointed, but also ripe for reform.
It’s far too soon to know what this change might look like. Britain’s muddled election results are creating a form of stalemate, where no faction can truly dominate. But it’s cheering to see Kensington’s less wealthy making their voices heard by upsetting the received wisdom about which area votes for who. They have long lived under a segregated social bell jar: This vote shows that it may yet shatter.
UPDATE: This post has been updated with new information: Around 9 p.m. London time Friday, Kensington was officially declared a win for the Labour Party.