Islington Redefined

Even the most expensive area in Islington North is home to more diversity than is ever discussed.

Islington is a borough that can’t be separated from the notion of gentrification. Across much of the media, and peppered in conversations and assumptions, it is derided as the dwelling of Guardian-reading, latte-sipping metropolitan luvvies who are out of touch with modern life.

That these ideas are propagated by those employed by the Guardian and similar organisations is ironic, as they adhere most closely to this stereotype. It should mark them out as those out of touch with modern life, because it means they barely notice what is going on around them in Islington, away from the main roads. This pervasive stereotype that has permeated any discussion on Corbynism or the future of the Labour Party must be put to rest.

Even the most expensive area in Islington North is home to more diversity than is ever discussed. I spoke to an Iraqi couple who had been there for almost forty years, pre-dating Corbyn’s time as the local MP. They moved here in 1979, and told me that when people “found out that [they] were the new proprietors of the corner shop, rubbish was left outside of our door, people knocking on windows, kicking the door late at night.”

The couple chose to ignore the provocations, and the taunting eventually relented. When they moved to Islington, there was just one black person in the neighbourhood, but “over time this changed and Islington became more multicultural,” which they both like and appreciate.

But there is another story, which has gone hand-in-hand with gentrification. The couple “would prefer more friendly neighbourhood vibes” but finds that “such is the snobbery that comes with this area”, it is not possible to interact and integrate with the richer residents who have moved in over the past two decades.

Robbie is 33 and lives in the neighbouring constituency of Islington South. Raised on a council estate with working class parents, originally from the East End, he had ethnic minority best friends, and an Asian neighbour. I asked him how he came to find himself sharing Britain First posts.

At my house we used to read The Sun and The Daily Mail a lot, well my parents did anyway. So everyday I was seeing or reading about how immigrants were coming into the UK. My dad had recently lost his job as a contractor so money was tight at home, and he got really angry and depressed about it. He blamed the new intake of Polish builders and so did I.

This feeling isn’t just limited to Robbie. In the week following the murder of Lee Rigby, Muslims from Finsbury Park mosque were attacked including women and a child. This culminated in a controversial event at the Islington War Memorial, where EDL members were in attendance and got into arguments with the local Islington Labour members.

The memorial is probably the first time I realised EDL weren’t really concerned about the things I was concerned about. I stood there watching them argue with people who were there to do the same thing as us, pay respect to Lee, and it made me feel really ill. I left thinking ‘what’ve I got myself into?

Robbie started scrutinising EDL posts more carefully, trying to see how they correlated with his own experience of living in Islington.

I couldn’t understand how what they were saying could be true if I wasn’t seeing it everyday. I have Muslim neighbours and they’ve always been so good to my family. They gave my dad work when he was laid off. How could they be the enemy? I was grateful for the sense of community I had growing up, it helped me avoid the wrong road that lay before me

The presence of families like Robbie’s are erased from any narrative of Islington you find in more mainstream media. The same media who fail to recognise in their cliches just how divided Islington is.

Islington’s council funding has been cut by half since 2010, which has put pressure on the amount of social housing that can be built and maintained. In 2014, the average cost of renting a two-bedroom flat in the private sector was £2,308. The average salary in Islington means that those on private rents would devote around three-quarters of their salary to renting.

Despite the image of Islington, there are plenty of residents struggling to make ends meet. The credit score of the average Islington resident is in line with those of the rest of inner London, compared to the substantially higher scores of more uniformly affluent boroughs in outer areas. Emily Thornberry, another of Islington’s MPs, describes being overwhelmed by the intricacies of housing problems, visible across all sectors - this illustrates the pressure that there is to give people good quality, affordable housing.

Between 2010-2014, before the full effects of cuts to housing and councils hit, only 1800 affordable homes were built. The council have tried to provide more, but funding can only go so far. With shortages already evident before 2010, the situation has become exacerbated and more stark. This is often cited as a reason for people to turn to more conservative politics, under the guise that local infrastructure is limited and strained due to the impact of immigration.

The Blue Labour project, which aims to recapture lost working class Labour voters by basically offering them One Nation Conservativism, exploits the loss of working class Labour votes to the Tories and UKIP by suggesting the party needs to attempt to outflank these two parties from the right. This is incorrect and will lead the party into perilous waters.

Because the unspoken truth is that Blue Labour can only work by holding onto a descriptor of the working class that no longer fits the reality of working class Britain, Indeed a lot of the indicators for affluent metropolitan areas - diverse, multicultural ignore the fact that black and minority ethnics are the fastest growing subsection of the working class.

Given that black and minority ethnics are also the lowest paid, and most likely to live in social housing or be in precarious work or unemployed, the Blue Labour ideology neither reflects nor accommodates this significant demographic.

Moreover, the rise in far right sympathies with Britain First and EDL was not restricted to traditional working class Labour towns. Indeed these groups were seducing even those living in urban multicultural areas who had grown up around diversity with Robbie not atypical. This further complicates the (sometimes implied but often explicit) opposition between “Islington” as a symbol for a liberal, multicultural, comfortably-off metropolis and the authentic spaces of “left-behind Britain” upon which Blue Labour thinking relies

Islington has seen many changes over sixty years, with early gentrifiers and then the property boom of the late nineties which led to hyper-gentrification of previously ignored areas such as Holloway, Finsbury Park and Tufnell Park. Yet over that same period Islington North has only had four MPs. The strength of constituency MPs in fostering good community cohesion is the true story of Islington. It’s how Chris Smith was able to keep his seat in 1983 following the SDP challenge, and it’s how Islington South’s current MP, Emily Thornberry, was able to hold on to the seat in 2005 with a majority of just 484. (She would increase this to 20,263 in 2017.) It’s what has kept Islington North returning Jeremy Corbyn for thirty four years.

Whether it’s the Irish community in Archway, the Somalian community in Finsbury Park, the Chinese & Turkish associations in Hornsey and Holloway or the few remaining working class pubs, you will find so many stories from Islington’s forgotten residents of how their MP helped them and never forgot them. One Finsbury Park resident is so grateful to Corbyn she regularly sends him gifts, prompting him to reply thanking her but kindly requesting no more gifts.

The point here is that Corbyn and Thornberry have kept their seats where other Labour figures have lost theirs. While the demographics of the area may favour this, that has not been the bulwark of safety for other MPs in similar areas. Corbyn and Thornberry reflect in their national politics what they have adopted in their constituency. They look to take care of the most vulnerable, particularly over housing matters, but they also work with everyone in their area to make sure that minorities are not left without a voice. It has not been perfect, but it has been a marker to give their names credibility often in spite of the party they have represented. The lesson is not that Labour needs to abandon its key principles, which these two MPs embrace, but that the wider party can show how a more sensitive approach to immigration, amongst other things, can be a positive position from which to operate, not a defensive one.

Islington’s public buildings boast the names of great Labour figures of the past - from Keir Hardie Estate to Margaret McMillan nursery to Wilfred Feinburgh Court, named for the Islington North MP of 1951. No doubt in years to come there will be an Emily Thornberry Estate or a Corbyn Court in the borough, as these two MPs take their place in Islington’s long Labour history.


Jude Wanga (@judeinlondon)

Jude Wanga is a writer, human rights campaigner and editor of New Socialist.