London is a strange city these days. When the birth of the latest royal baby was announced, the news was flashed across advertisement hoardings, and some public buildings were floodlit in red, white, and blue. Crowds gathered to cheer at the hospital in Paddington where the birth took place, and the next day more queued up to get tickets to watch the gun salutes fired at Hyde Park and the Tower of London.
Yet this is a city where it seems likely that the hard-left socialism currently dominating the Labour Party will gain many votes in the forthcoming (May 3) local elections, and where many academic and cultural institutions are very much dominated by hard-left assumptions and ideology.
Greater London is divided into 32 London Boroughs, which run the local services including aspects of health and welfare, education and environmental care. Some boroughs have long been dominated by one party. Islington, for example, is a by-word for the domination of the hard left, where the Labour Party holds all the seats on the local Council but one (the lone opposition is a member of the Green Party). Meanwhile, across the river in Wandsworth, the local Council is Conservative—but that could well change on May 3, as the general prediction is that Labour is heading for some major gains there.
Local elections are of course influenced by national trends and feelings. The current Conservative government under Prime Minister Theresa May is unpopular, housing in London is hopelessly expensive and home ownership an unattainable goal for most of the young, and the international situation feels bleak. Things do not feel happy or confident—people feel that it’s time to vote for a party that opposes the Government.
Catholic social teaching of course can be reflected in any political party—but there are concerns that it is increasingly difficult to be an active Catholic in Britain’s political scene today. A Conservative government introduced same-sex marriage. And in the Labour Party, abortion as a “woman’s right” is official policy, which effectively means that any candidate for Parliament has to stand with that. Of course, at a local level these issues are not raised: the debates are—or should be—about housing and schools, litter in the streets and adequate playgrounds for children. But what about the active Catholic who seeks to serve in public office but is quizzed on views about marriage or abortion even when these issues are not relevant to the office concerned? Increasingly, having an independent voice can result in intimidation and bullying at specially-summoned meetings, and with the aim of ensuring that any opposing viewpoint is crushed.
Worryingly, another issue has emerged in recent weeks—that of anti-Semitism. Labour Members of Parliament who are Jewish have been subjected to insults and humiliation, and a sustained campaign denouncing Jews and Israel has dominated much Labour Party activity. This is horrible, and is something that at one time would have been rightly denounced by every decent person. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has belatedly announced that action will be taken. But, worryingly, others who should have spoken out have remained vague or ambivalent.
Britain—known for its sense of justice and fairness, with a tradition of good humour and neighbourliness—is changing. Is it perhaps partly because of the changes in the deepest and most personal bonds of all? Among young people, significant numbers have never known an intact family centred on marriage, but have grown up with various relationships—mother’s current boyfriend, mother’s former boyfriend(s), dad’s current wife, grandmother’s new partner, and so on. They have been bombarded with slogans about the importance of accepting and celebrating homosexual lifestyles and denouncing any suggestion that such a way of life could be wrong. Consciously or unconsciously, many have imbibed a sense of permanent uncertainty about relationships—and this often manifests as anger. A political party that taps into anger, resentment, and denouncing somehow finds an echo in their own feelings.
Of course there are many young whom this does not apply—notably among young Catholics, active in the pro-life movement and so on. But there is a noticeable, vocal, angry mood in the youth-dominated Momentum movement in the Labour Party. It is not connected to poverty or physical hardship. In fact, it seems to be especially dominant among the more privileged classes.
It will be interesting—but, I fear, rather depressing—to watch the local election results coming in on the evening of May 3. And, for some, the experience will also be different from the way it used to be.
“At the election count, it always used to be that people from the different parties—the candidates and their supporters—would talk and laugh together as the results were coming in,” one Islington resident told me. “After all, there was nothing more they could do—the polls were closed. It was just a matter of watching the counting. It was always a good atmosphere. But things are different now.”
In a city—and a country—that looks set to face a new era of division and a loss of traditional ways of doing things, perhaps a royal baby and the promise of something that unifies and is cause for non-political celebration and community feeling is just what is needed. As I write this, just up-river from the Tower of London, the guns have finished pounding their salute, and the evening newspaper is full of royal baby gossip over godparents, christening outfits, and the like. Maybe it’s just a distraction from reality, or maybe it’s a way of holding on to something that reminds us that politics doesn’t define us and we can still share a sense of belonging to something together. I hope so.