Both harbinger and bellwether — what Britain’s political elite can learn from the Thames Estuary
An often-overlooked contribution to Tony Blair’s electoral success was his understanding of the ‘Estuary English’ vernacular and identity. Linguists tell us that this form of speech originated on either side of the Thames Estuary during the 1980s. Since then, elements of its accent and vocabulary have spread to other parts of the South East and beyond, with Estuary English carrying a range of connotations beyond the geographical. For this reason, the Thames Estuary provides an interesting example of the relationship between a region’s cultural history and its voting patterns.
Blair was not the first politician to connect with the people of the Thames Estuary. As long ago as 1381 Wat Tyler, who came from a village between Basildon and Thurrock, helped local people to articulate their dissatisfaction with the medieval establishment. In 1979 it was the capture of Basildon that most tangibly symbolised Margaret Thatcher’s appeal to a disaffected and aspirational working class.
And, sure enough, it was among C1 and C2 owner-occupiers, in constituencies bordering the Thames Estuary, where New Labour achieved many of its largest swings 18 years later. The table below looks at the swings to Labour in 1997. It shows that, the more tightly you hone in on the Thames Estuary seats, the greater the swing. In eleven Thames Estuary constituencies (Dartford, Gravesend, Medway, Chatham and Aylesford, Gillingham, Sittingbourne, Thurrock, Basildon, Billericay, Castle Point, Rayleigh) the average swing to New Labour was half again higher than the average for England.
Along the Thames, disaffection has taken many forms. Barking and Dagenham was a council which Labour had very real fears of losing to the far right in the 2000s. And, on the night of the 2015 election, there was great interest in the Thurrock result, with UKIP coming closer than anywhere else in the country to defeating a Conservative incumbent. It was while canvassing for Labour against UKIP in the Rochester by-election in 2014 that Emily Thornberry MP famously tweeted her astonishment at the sight of three England flags draped over a house with a white van parked in front of it.
Meanwhile, nowhere in Britain did voters show as much enthusiasm for leaving the EU as they did downstream from Tower Bridge. In Havering, Bexley and Basildon, in Thurrock and the Medway towns, and in Thanet and Clacton, Leave votes were all upward of 60 per cent.
An interesting point of contrast is the Thames Valley. Outside London the largest support for Remain was in the Cotswolds, in rural Oxfordshire and Berkshire, in Oxford, Reading and Windsor as well as in Thames-side London Boroughs on the western side of London, such as Richmond and Wandsworth. (It is worth noting that Hillingdon, Spelthorne and Slough, where Leave performed comparatively well, are areas from which many people commute to Heathrow rather than to central London).
Why the difference on the Thames Estuary? Is it fanciful to suppose that current political attitudes reveal the persistence of a cultural divide originating in the Middle Ages, when the monarchy and its court established the West End of London as the epicentre for sophistication and the consumption of luxury goods, leaving the City and the docks to prosper from commerce and finance?
It is certainly true that, if the success of West Londoners emerged from their experience in building strategic relationships with the powerful, success came to East Londoners via their talent for spotting and transacting potential deals — based on a keen knowledge of market prices. Perhaps this explains the popularity of Sunday markets across Essex, one of which — from St Osyth, near Clacton — is pictured above.
Walking in stages along both sides of the Thames towpath, as I did a little while ago, the route took me past oil refineries, power stations, cement works, deep-water ports, sewage plants, incinerators, and sites for converting pulp into paper or cardboard. In these types of industry, we perhaps find another clue to the area’s character.
Historically many of the jobs on the Thames Estuary have been in these highly capital intensive industries, characterised by demanding shift patterns. Because they are so capital-intensive, employers in these sectors have been able to afford to pay premium rates for reliable manual staff. Many such workplaces were seen as ‘men’s work’, and were located in places which required workers to travel by car. They often involved unsociable hours and little contact with end-users or consumers. Oil, gas, wood, chalk, gravel and paper are producer goods, sold to intermediaries. They are very different from the mass-market consumer products on which west London’s economy came to be built.
For the Thames Estuary, this form of industrial development has resulted in a pattern of housing and community development that is quite different from much of the affluent South East. Whereas development elsewhere followed the arrival of the railway, allowing commuters rapid access to white collar jobs in London, the development of communities in the Thames Estuary arose from the need to house workers close to the local plants. The result has been more tight-knit and locally focussed communities.
Even at the time of Wat Tyler and the Peasant’s Revolt, it seems that relatively few landowners established themselves in the areas bordering the Thames Estuary. The absence of a powerful squirearchy in the area is evident from the comparatively few medieval parish churches that have been subject to Victorian modernisation. This — combined with the relatively modest landscape value in the area — has led to planning policies which, since 1945, have tended to favour house-building over conservation. This is in contrast to north Essex and the Weald of Kent, where powerful preservation lobbies have successfully restricted development.
Relaxed attitudes towards development, comparatively moderate land values and well-paid industrial jobs thus contribute to a proliferation of housing developments designed to meet the needs of nuclear family owner occupiers. Places such as South Woodham Ferrers, Canvey Island and Rainham (Kent) do not have a large historic identity; their principal attraction, for many home owners, is that they are affordable and accessible by car.
Far away from centres of professional employment, yet with comparatively little social housing, voters along much of the Thames Estuary thus have few reasons for strong economic allegiance to parties of the left or the right.
On my walking tour of the Thames towpath, I got a strong sense of these areas’ complex relationship with London. Encountering a train full of West Ham supporters alighting at Stanford-le-Hope station, was a reminder of the areas’ historic links to the East End. The forbears of many estuary residents will have left in order to escape the limitations of London, get a better living environment and, in some cases, find a more familiar and traditional community, away from the diversity of the capital.
Yet what is interesting is that some areas along the Thames Estuary are becoming demographically similar to inner London, which — with its increasingly rising prices — has become harder for migrant and BME groups to afford.
Alighting at Dartford station on one trip, for instance, I noticed the diverse makeup of the smartly-dressed commuters on the platform for trains to London Bridge. Analysis of the area using our Origins tool suggests that proportionally large numbers of Black African heritage residents are moving to the area — and particularly to new private sector housing developments.
This is confirmed by the map below, which shows the areas around London where the proportion of adults with Nigerian names has risen fastest since 2011. The Thames Estuary has by far the biggest increases of anywhere in England.
Meanwhile, just as the high cost of London housing combined with historically low interest rates has attracted home owners of Black African descent to Gravesend and Dartford, an Orthodox Jewish community has recently begun to migrate from Stamford Hill to Canvey Island. As has been noted, many of these are areas with historically large far right or nationalist votes, and it will be important for government to support cohesion and integration as these changes occur.
The region upstream from London to the west are blessed with what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described as ‘Cultural Capital’. This term refers to the knowledge, behaviours, skills, tastes and reference points which are used to demonstrate high educational and cultural competence.
The upper Thames Valley contains many of the institutions through which the establishment passes on markers of status — institutions such as Eton, Oxford, Sandhurst. Moneyed as the Thames Valley is, many of the signifiers which confer status relate to the things ‘money cannot buy’.
By contrast the Thames Estuary has no prestigious boarding schools or universities — no Henley or Ascot. A walk down Rainham High Street in Medway reveals beauticians, hair stylists, tanning studios, gyms and tattoo bars — institutions which promote hedonism, the importance of first impressions, and the need to make an immediate connection with others. This perhaps explains why associations with the term ‘Essex’ often relate to ostentation, ‘bling’, unrestrained energy, fun, shrewdness and a lack of deference to authority.
Notwithstanding this, importance is also often attached to property ownership along the Thames Estuary. On my walk through the region I noticed that the exteriors of houses were invariably well-maintained and many sported extensions or conversions. Care and attention has been given to front gardens — bringing much pleasure to passers-by such as myself. All of this is in contrast to a public realm which is often found overgrown with nettles, thickets or hawthorn. Abandoned boats, stuck in the mud, were recurring features of the walk along the Thames’s sea defences.
Walking along dykes, footpaths and residential areas on my own travels, I was particularly struck by the friendliness of passers-by, and by their helpfulness and desire to engage. This is a characteristic which is often absent in other sections of the coast along which I have walked.
A bartender in East Tilbury went to the unexpected trouble of searching the internet for the time of the last bus, and then of walking me to the stop. Further along the coast a ferryman over the River Crouch, having taken a detailed interest in the itinerary of my walk, took pains to explain the way to the station. Fewer people seemed alone or isolated here than in other parts of the country.
Although in 1997 all six seats on the Kent shore of the Thames Estuary fell to Labour, the region has too few MPs to affect the outcome of any but the closest general election. Nonetheless a case could be made that no would-be Prime Minister can achieve a decisive majority unless he or she can appeal to the people whose identity is steeped in ‘Estuary English’.
In that respect the lower Thames is both a bellwether for psephologists and a harbinger of future patterns. It has, arguably, foretold the rise of Thatcherism, Blairism and Farageism. Indeed, it could be said that this is the part of the country which, more frequently than anywhere else, poses radical new challenges to the self-confidence of the London elite.
In the future, Britain’s political classes might benefit from spending more time getting to know the rhythms of this fascinating region.