The suburban areas that were initially stereotyped in the late nineteenth century as ‘Villa Tory’ strongholds and exemplified by Hackney and Islington were places where appearances and stiff upper lips were kept up, and foreigners and radicals were kept down.
Flash forward a hundred years and these two constituencies return Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. How, when, and why, did the constituencies, and places like them in a ring around central London and in the big provincial cities, change their profile from ‘Villa Tory’ to ‘bedsit revolutionary’?
The ‘Villa Tory’
Suburbia as a political force began in the 1880s after the explosive growth of the Victorian cities. In the language of the 1880s, suburbia was ‘villadom’ – large and relatively new houses occupied by a middle or upper middle class family with its domestic servants. From the 1880s until the 1920s, villadom tended to be regarded with a certain amount of disdain.
My examination of the evolution of electoral behaviour in these areas shows suburban politics was from the very beginning essentially conservative, with a small ‘c’ that quickly became a big ‘C’.
The franchise and electoral system change in 1885 accelerated this process. The big cities were divided into single member constituencies, and the villa suburbs were large enough to be the dominant influence in a significant minority of these seats.
Lord Rosebery described villadom (even if to decry the description as a caricature) as being a place full of people who were concerned most of all with their own property, obsessed with status and respectability, and uninterested in politics or civic life beyond a vague conservative attachment to common sense and patriotism. The perception of an instinctively, rather than politically conscious, conservative suburban vote was present in Edwardian politics too. So what happened?
Particularly at the lower end of the social scale, villadom was becoming more working class by around 1914. The villas themselves were losing their grip on ‘respectability’ and the mansion houses were being sold for land, on which working class terraces soon appeared. But with a new lease of life for the Villa Tory after 1918, it was not until 1945 that Labour broke the Conservatives’ grip.
The causes of Labour’s increase of vote share in these areas are a combination of an outward movement of the population to interwar suburbia, the breaking up of villas into flats, and Labour’s increasing appeal to middle class electors. My article on this subject has more details.
The rising red tide in our cities
The story in the other cities with villa suburbs is broadly similar to that in London, except that there was no comparable small 1980s reverse in Labour’s advance (more on this in my article). Merseyside is something of a special case; the Conservatives also lost a clutch of villa‐type seats in Liverpool in 1964 which never came back, and their vote collapsed abjectly from the 1970s onwards.
The long‐term change in these villa and provincial west end seats between 1955 and 2017 is startling (see Figure 2). In 1955, each one was Conservative, usually by a big margin. But the Conservatives last won a contest in any of them in 1992. By 2017, Labour won every seat and had a 39 percentage point lead over the Conservatives. Although 2017 was particularly dramatic, the change has been gradual and continuous: in every election since 1959, Labour has beaten the national swing in this group of seats.
The party’s exceptional results here in the 2017 election are, therefore, a new peak on a long‐term trend rather than a breakthrough.
The similarity between the trends in the villa seats in London and the comparable seats in metropolitan Britain since the 1950s suggests that what has happened in London is no mere peculiarity of the capital; it is an electoral and social phenomenon in all the larger cities.
The electoral cleavages based on urban/rural settlement, levels of education, ethnicity, public and private sector and youth and age have not emerged all at once in 2017, but have been developing for decades. Much attention has been devoted to one side of the phenomenon, namely the increasing openness of white working class communities to voting for the Conservatives or parties further to the right, but there has been little corresponding focus on the suburban constituencies which have been steering to the left. Yesterday’s conservative utopias have now become some of the safest socialist strongholds in the land.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Political Quarterly journal.