Core vote still waiting for things to get better

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am


Ten years ago, Tony Blair and Labour partied on London's South Bank till dawn, to the tune of Things Can Only Get Better.

For some, that day has already arrived. Walk around Holly Street estate in east London and you enter a world different from the neglect of the mid-90s. The crime-infested high-rise blocks have gone, transplanted with new double-glazed homes and a smattering of lawns and trees.

It was here, in Queensbridge, with middle-class homes alongside gritty estates, that Mr Blair started off in politics in 1981 as ward secretary. What he saw influenced his thinking: the party was failing its core vote by campaigning against nuclear weapons when London's deprived lived on rundown estates without even hot water.

Now they do have hot water, and new homes: a GBP100 million (HK$1.55 billion) redeveloped mix of expensive townhouses, affordable homes for key workers, and low-rent association-run homes. Things certainly look better. But are they?

The question has dominated London conversation for a week. For many the answer is 'almost certainly'. London is booming.

Its lax tax rules lure in rich emigres, the City attracting traders and bankers whose huge bonuses trickle down, if not through rampant house prices, which have trebled since 1997, then by more jobs - or by more muggings.

London is now a world city - 40 per cent of Londoners are born elsewhere, immigrant Poles, Brazilians or Nigerians attracted by the jobs and the can-do, cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Democracy was restored with a directly elected mayor, Ken Livingstone - once Mr Blair's left-wing nemesis but now 'on message' - sorting out bread-and-butter issues such as transport, and helping deliver the Olympics.

The Games, less than 3km away, will better Queensbridge. New Tube and rail lines will make it more desirable. The area has gentrified beyond efforts pioneered by Mr Blair and his wife Cherie. And therein lies a major critique of Blairism: scratch the surface and old social problems remain.

The boom has bypassed the core Labour vote. Two years ago, local Conservative Andrew Boff milked the unease, shocking Labour by winning a council by-election here. He was ejected a year later when Labour mobilised.

'While the streets are cleaner for the middle classes, the people in need have a worse time,' said Mr Boff. 'While they've been willing to spend on buildings to show off what they've done, they have failed to spend on the social infrastructure, specifically on marginalised and ignored young people.'

He added: 'Holly Street gives a lie to the idea that you could can just build your way out of deprivation, as it is a very fine development. It just means that young people now have the opportunity of loitering with nothing to do in a better class of area.' Loitering youths late last year stabbed a father of two to death after he confronted them.

Jamie Carswell, Hackney Labour group spokesman, admits mistakes. 'Fifteen years ago Holly Street was a no-go zone. Now there is a sense of community. But we must ensure it becomes even better by making social services more joined up.'

Tom Price, 25, a Queensbridge Labour councillor, said: 'A few years back, a survey showed two-thirds on the estate wanted to leave. Now two-thirds want to stay.'

Ten years of massive investment is making its mark, he says. In short, things can only get better.