Chapter 3: What role for policy?

London Identities

Chapter 3: What role for policy?

Engaging in policy terms with identity is often fraught with challenges. By their very nature, identity formation, promotion and perpetuation can be exclusionary processes, as they rely on the creation of the in group (‘us’) and the out group (‘them’). For politicians to involve themselves in these distinctions, which are often constructed over a long period of time, requires a very careful and considered approach. Top-down interventions are often clunky, heavy-handed and can have negative consequences – whether or not these are intended. 43

But is there political value in civic identity? All three London mayors have reflected an image of London through their policy and publicity programmes, albeit in different ways. Their focus on the issue reflects the important role/s that identity can play:

  • Identity can support social cohesion in the capital; an appropriate and positive overarching London identity could bridge other social divides.
  • Identity has important implications for London branding, both nationally and internationally. The current Mayor’s ‘London is Open’ campaign, launched in 2016 in the wake of the EU Referendum, seeks to promote a vision of London internationally among both individuals and businesses. He has also appointed a Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement and set up an office for citizenship.
  • A shared sense of belonging and common purpose within London could support policy implementation. 44 Citizens are more likely to accept policies benefitting others if they feel some sense of social solidarity. The idea of ‘common good’ is strongest perhaps within social welfare policy (generally set nationally), 45 where individuals more readily accept payment or provision to their fellow ‘in-group members’, but may equally apply to various policies London’s government may want to pursue.

All three mayors elected to date have celebrated immigration and diversity in a way that reflects the views of an electorate more comfortable with difference, and indicates that the politics of the capital are at odds with national politics. Boris Johnson made numerous statements supportive of immigration as key to London’s economic success, 46 and appreciative of London’s ethnic diversity. 47 In 2009, Johnson launched ‘The Story of London’, a call for Londoners to reconnect with the city’s history. He pointed at “cultural strengths” that people bring to the city, and how it turns “everybody into Londoners”. 48

Sadiq Khan chose to stress London exceptionalism after the UK vote to leave the EU, celebrating London’s difference to the rest of the country and the city’s plurality.

“We don’t simply tolerate each other’s differences, we celebrate them. Many people from all over the globe live and work here, contributing to every aspect of life in our city. We now need to make sure that people across London, and the globe, hear that #LondonIsOpen.” 49

Sadiq Khan

Sadiq Khan has also focused on social integration as a priority issue, appointing a Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, and launching a social integration strategy. 50 The Mayor has also promoted the London Borough of Culture programme, which awards funding and recognition to boroughs that promote cultural projects connecting communities. The boroughs that entered the competition emphasised their varying cultural heritage, and contributions to London’s culture, building on what different groups perceive as elements of being a Londoner, and how these understandings can form bridges between groups and geographies within the city.

The narrative of a successful and hospitable global city has also gained prominence as mayors have developed their own response to traumatic events, high exposure moments when they have sought to reinforce solidarity and the city’s identity. In his speech immediately following the 7/7 bombings in 2005, Ken Livingstone stressed the attractiveness of London’s way of life – a city comfortable with difference that offers refuge to many.

“However many of us you kill, you will not stop their flight to our cities where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.” 51

Ken Livingstone

Strengthening city identity could also help London to make the case for more devolution. But identity and devolution is by no means a straightforward relationship. Indeed, there are also questions around how a stronger London identity would fit within a broader national identity, particularly if the two display some contrasting attributes. Overinflating the capital’s sense of civic pride and exceptionalism could result in some untoward and unintended consequences. For example, a 2014 poll found that a majority of British people outside London believe that national politics is too focused on London and does not reflect local needs, and that media attention and cultural activity are both too focused on the capital. 52 There is a resultant degree of anti-London feeling from elsewhere in the UK, which could be further exacerbated – increasing London’s isolation – if messages of difference and a stronger identity were pursued.

So, urban identity formation can be a valuable tool for branding, for cohesion, for making the case for devolution – and can form a valuable bond when articulated at times of crisis – but it rarely comes from the topdown. London identity remains as strong as it was 40 years ago, and crosses barriers of politics, class and age, despite the dramatic changes that the capital has seen.

The Mayor and other London leaders need to tread a difficult path: on the one hand, they need to avoid crude appeals to a London identity that defines itself against the rest of the country and excludes some Londoners; on the other hand they need to find language and policies that sustain some sense of common belonging. Any policy involvement needs to be delicate, intricate and aware of complexity. The less we seek to homogenise and simplify an identity that is complex and polymorphous, the better. 53

London identity remains as strong as it was 40 years ago, and crosses barriers of politics, class and age, despite the dramatic changes that the capital has seen.

General Reference: Tomaney, J. (2015). Region and place II: Belonging. Progress in Human Geography, 39(4), 507-516

London community
Stephanie Riddell
  • 43 Muir, R. and Wehterrel, M. (2010) Identity, Politics and Public Policy. IPPR.
  • 44 Mentioned in roundtable
  • 45 Spicker, P. (1988) Principles of Social Welfare: an introduction to thinking about the welfare state. London: Routledge
  • 46 The Huffington Post UK (5th June 2014). Boris Johnson says London would fall like Sparta without immigration and Dominiczak P. (25th October 2013). Boris: I am the only British politician who will admit to being pro-immigration. The Telegraph.
  • 47 Black History 365. Message from the Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
  • 48 Mulholland, H. (4th June 2009). Boris Johnson launches the Story of London festival. Guardian Online.
  • 49 Mayor of London. Our #LondonIsOpen campaign.
  • 50 Greater London Authority (2018). All of Us: the Mayor’s strategy for social integration.
  • 51 Financial Times (7th July 2005).
  • 52 Wilcox et al. 2014.
  • 53 Sen, A. (2008) Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. New York: W.W. Norton