In the EU referendum, London is the capital of Remain

Multicultural metropolis at ease with immigration and globalisation
© Charlie Bibby

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Councillor Bernard Gentry had a fight on his hands when he stepped into a Brixton church to convince a crowd of Londoners to vote for Britain to leave the EU.

After two hours of combat, the verdict came in: just one person raised his hand to indicate a leave vote. Dozens of others sided with their local MP, Chuka Umunna, 37, a staunch advocate of remaining in the EU.

The episode showed how a Leave campaign that has thrived in rural areas and small towns with its focus on “control” and immigration has fallen flat in the UK’s cosmopolitan metropolis, where there were 5.3m voters in the last general election.

“[It is a] strange irony,” said Mr Umunna, who has a Nigerian father and English-Irish mother. “We have seen more immigration than most communities and yet it is not quite the same sensitive issue here than in other places.”

In Lambeth, which includes Brixton, multiculturalism is an integral part of everyday life: less than 40 per cent of the local population is classified as ethnically British or Irish. The polling firm YouGov ranks the diverse neighbourhood among the most pro-European areas in England.

Mr Umunna suggested that his constituency — where halal butchers jostle for space with hip coffee bars — was by nature “more experienced at handling immigration”.

Herbie Jones, a 19-year-old barman skateboarding on Brixton Oval, was keen on the EU’s travel freedoms and was scornful of the Leave campaign’s views on immigration.

“I am worried that if we vote Out, millions of Brits will come back from the continent,” he joked.

© Anna Gordon

In the City, London’s financial district, pragmatism ruled. Jonathan Richardson, 35, said he would vote out of self-interest rather than affection. “It is much easier to stay in. I work with Europeans, I have children with a European partner and I have actually been to Spain and France more often than to north London.”

The referendum has crystallised a broader divide between the confidence of London and the worries across the rest of Britain in the face of globalisation.

“Overall, London or Londoners win — in England, in the UK, in the European Union and globally. That is not the case for all Londoners, but overall they are winning in the political, the economic and cultural competitions that take place at those different levels,” said Dr Tim Oliver, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics.

For some British “outers”, he argued, this distant and diverse London itself had become a rallying cry for the need to leave the EU.

© Anna Gordon

At Chapel Market in Islington, John Peapworth, a fruit and vegetable seller, is a case in point. Born in London, he was forced to move to Essex 20 years ago by spiralling property prices. “The sooner we get out the better,” he said. But all around him, the flyers in the windows of ivy-clad terraced houses read: Remain.


Brexit? In or Out

© Jonathan McHugh

What a British divorce from the EU would look like
How any break-up is carried out will have a huge impact on Britain for generations
The economic consequences of Brexit
Three very different outcomes of a British vote to leave the EU
What would Brexit mean for the City of London?
There is a clear split over how a vote to leave would shape the capital’s future as a financial centre
What the City stands to lose and gain from Brexit
Sectors such as foreign exchange trading have boomed during EU years
What has the EU done for the UK?
The long-running debate over the economic benefits of membership remains unresolved


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.