1927: Cockney children play a game of cricket in a London street. Picture Credit: Central Press/Getty Images

The strange death of Cockney London

London’s white working class all but vanished, with little reporting or remark by press or politicians

Artillery Row

As of 2024, the white (British) working class have largely disappeared from inner London. Over the last few decades they have departed en masse for the outer boroughs like Bromley and Havering, and for Essex and Kent, forming what is known as the cockney diaspora. Initially this migration was an economically driven one, getting started in the early to mid 20th century as the redevelopment of inner city housing prompted its residents to move to the new, more spacious council estates that had been built further away from the city centre, or for those who had done well, to buy their own home. Right to Buy in the 80s advanced the process by giving people an asset which they could trade for a larger house further afield, as did the increased availability of mortgages caused by the deregulation of the financial sector.

As of 2024, this departure is largely complete, both physically and also from the official narrative of London

It was from the mid 90s though that the movement hit its peak, as the mass-immigration driven transformation of working class neighbourhoods (aided by a needs-based social housing policy) joined the existing factors prompting people to leave. As David Goodhart wrote in 2013, “the share of the white British population in London fell so dramatically from 59.8 per cent in 2001 to 44.9 per cent in 2011 not only because of high levels of immigration (both white and non-white) but also thanks to an exodus of white Britons. The number of white British Londoners fell by 600,000, about three times higher in absolute terms than over the previous census period, 1991 to 2001.” This fall wasn’t the young professionals leaving, who kept on coming to London to start their careers as they do to this day, but the working class families, the ‘somewheres’ in Goodhart’s terminology, who were seeking a new somewhere further east.

You’d think this mass movement would be a phenomenon of great interest to geographers, sociologists and journalists, yet there have not been many treatments of it aside from by those who were already willing to deal with controversial topics on ethnicity, e.g. Goodhart, Eric Kaufmann and the journalist Michael Collins, who describes it in his book The Likes Of Us: A Biography Of The White Working Class. One of the few mainstream treatments there has been was the 2016 BBC documentary Last Whites of the East End, about white working class residents of the London Borough of Newham (which at the time had the lowest white British percentage of anywhere in the country) who were moving out. The predominant sentiment given by the leavers and by the few who remained was that the departures were more push than pull: that they no longer felt at home where they grew up due to how immigration had transformed their neighbourhoods, that as one elderly woman put it “the life that we knew is finished”, or that as one man put it more strongly “I feel like we’ve been ethnically cleansed”. Documentary makers of course choose which side of a story they want to highlight, but it is striking how the sentiments expressed by the interviewees contrast with the other BBC treatment of the issue, the 2013 article ‘Why have the white British left London?’, which focused only on the economic aspects and conceptualised their departure solely as “a story of aspiration. It is a story of success.”

As of 2024, this departure is largely complete, both physically and also from the official narrative of London. In The Likes of Us Collins writes an account of a man doing family history research at Borough High Street Library and coming across a brochure promoting the borough. The brochure stated that “Southwark is a highly cosmopolitan area with a rich mix of communities going back centuries”, and went on to mention the various communities that had lived there since the 15th century, with one conspicuous absence. “You wouldn’t think us English had ever lived here if you look at this” the man says to Collins. The official story of London offered by Sadiq Khan is similar, one where the city was built by migrants and refugees, as if it had not been largely monocultural within living memory. Khan’s pronouncements on topics like Brexit or the refugee crisis have the undoubtedly intended effect of sharpening the divisions between his concept of London and the prevailing sentiment in the rest of the country, i.e. the Britain that is inhabited both physically and mentally by the members of the cockney diaspora.

The cockney legacy in London today

Cockney London still exists today but it is half submerged in the real world and completely de-emphasised from the official narrative of the city. One element that does remain is an archipelago of pubs of a sort that was once the norm in inner London but is now rare. Most pubs that you walk into in this area are spiritual descendants of the gastropub, a concept that fittingly dates from 1991, around the hinge point in our narrative. They serve craft beer (or more commonly craft-branded beer) to London’s transient professionals and aspirant professionals, with decor that will be either modern, or if old-fashioned, ironic. The staff will be young and generally immigrants (there has been a smooth transition from Eastern European to Indian bar staff since Brexit). But every so often, you walk through a pub’s doors and you find what I have come to think of as a ‘cockney legacy’ pub, more similar to what a normal pub is or at least used to be in much of the country (no food, standard beer selection, sport on the TV, often staffed by the owners), inhabited by the remaining locals plus those who have come into the city from the diaspora. These pubs exist in the midst of Bethnal Green, Hackney, the Isle of Dogs, Deptford and Bermondsey, white working class islands in a sea of super-diverse London, now feeling like just another minority in the city despite representing what was the dominant culture of these areas only a few decades ago.

“I recall the elation when Ken Livingstone was defeated in the 2008 mayoral election. He was held responsible for rebranding the capital as a multicultural utopia that airbrushed white Londoners from its past as well as its present”

The other side of the legacy is the commuters, those who come in from the cockney diaspora for work or pleasure. Black cabs driven into central London from a Kent driveway every morning are a great metaphor both for the outmigration process I have described and for the reality of London as a ‘global city’ more generally: a highly regulated local industry that provided a good living for native workers being confronted by the very 21st century combination of Californian technology, global capital, and cheap immigrant labour. Then there are the everyday commuters: city workers, tradesmen, estate agents, and so on. Here it is relevant to mention a third type of London pub in addition to the previous two: the Wetherspoons type, representing, unlike the somewhat down-at-heel cockney legacy pubs, a still thriving modern version of the “living room of Deep England” but situated not in deep England itself but in the places where its people come to work. Tellingly these are often found inside or near to the train stations (Cannon Street, Liverpool Street, London Bridge) that connect the cockney diaspora to London. Finally there are the match days for London’s football clubs: walking around Bermondsey after a Millwall home game for example is to see the area demographically returned back to how it would have been in 1990 or earlier.

Political effects of the cockney migration

London’s politics has become increasingly Labour dominated as the party’s two modern pillars of support, professional graduates and ethnic minorities, have come to make up more and more of the city’s population. The cockney diaspora meanwhile has gone in the opposite direction politically, first moving towards Thatcher in 1979 (‘Basildon man’), and since 2010 nearly universally electing Tory MPs, and predominantly voting for Brexit. This is undoubtedly for cultural reasons as much as economic ones: many of the Tory voting constituencies on the banks of the Thames estuary remain quite poor. Those areas of the diaspora that lie within greater London have also tended to vote Tory in the London mayoral elections, and Bromley and Havering recorded the lowest support of all the boroughs for establishing the mayoralty in the first place back in 1998. Unsurprisingly, Sadiq Khan is not popular here, he has never won these areas and support for removing the London Assembly and Mayor altogether appears stronger here than anywhere. The picture this all paints is of areas that in some sense see themselves as in opposition to the dominant narrative of today’s London. As Michael Collins recounts of the areas on the sides of the Thames estuary: “I recall the elation when Ken Livingstone was defeated in the 2008 mayoral election. He was held responsible for rebranding the capital as a multicultural utopia that airbrushed white Londoners from its past as well as its present. Support for Boris Johnson was greatest in Bexley and Bromley (72 per cent) in the south, and Havering and Redbridge (63 per cent) in the east.”

As the outer boroughs diversify further though, the Tories “doughnut strategy” for the mayoral elections that worked for Boris Johnson is now less likely to succeed in the coming decades. While looking more broadly at the cockney diaspora the current projections for the next election are a return to the Blair years, with Labour regaining the poorer constituencies along the banks of the Thames while the Tories retain those further inland.

The future of the diaspora

It’s possible to see a future where the cockney diaspora gets swallowed up by the diffusion of 21st century London outwards, as ethnic minorities and professional graduates follow them out of the city for cheaper housing. The bow wave of culture may also be running further ahead of concrete reality in some areas of the diaspora, where the older people speak in a cockney or estuary English accent while the young speak in MLE. However, this is still a very different area culturally, ethnically, and politically from London and is clearly to a significant extent reactive against the city. Any new genuinely conservative movement therefore would likely find stronger support here than most other places in the south of England.

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