LONDON — When Jeremy Corbyn launched Labour’s general-
election campaign in May by casting the race as a “chance to take our wealth back,” he meant from people who live in Kensington, a tony neighborhood in West London where the average home sells for 1.4 million British pounds, the equivalent of nearly $1.8 million. It is the most affluent electoral district in the country.
In a turnaround, however, Kensington backed Labour in Thursday’s general election, embracing the party of a man who promises “socialism of the 21st century” and rides his bicycle to work.
The upset, marking Labour’s first victory in Kensington since the district was drawn in 1974, boosted the opposition party’s surge across the capital. The outcome in London, where Labour snagged several districts from the ruling party, helped deny the Conservatives a majority, sending the country toward a hung parliament, in which no party can govern alone.
But the result was especially startling in Kensington, an enclave of extreme opulence within a city generally familiar with displays of conspicuous consumption.
Luxury-car dealerships and designer stores line Kensington’s streets. The mansions of well-to-do bankers sit in the shadows of the private palaces owned by Russian government ministers, whose imprint has lent the nickname “Red Square” to one of the neighborhood’s most sumptuous tracts of land. The air of royalty is thickest on the west end of iconic Hyde Park, where Prince William lives with his wife, Kate Middleton, in Kensington Palace.
But the rise of Labour, here of all places, suggests that the country’s political divisions, which are increasingly solidifying around the two main parties in a tendency mirroring U.S.-style polarization, have left many votes unsorted. And with Britain uncertain about its looming departure from the European Union — and with anger over the condition of public services mounting — political moods continue to frustrate expectations.
“It’s a very unexpected swing,” said Mike Savage, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. “It appears that going to the left can be a popular strategy, especially in cities where you see these big inequalities and the need for public services.”
Kensington oozes Conservative power, home to some of the most prominent members of the party, past and present. These include Michael Gove, who famously declared Britain tired of experts as he stumped for the country’s split with Europe, and George Osborne, a former chancellor of the Exchequer and now editor of the London Evening Standard. The paper shares headquarters on Kensington’s main commercial street with the powerful right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail. The back yard of the headquarters is Kensington Square, where Amber Rudd, the home secretary and a possible replacement for May as Conservative leader, lives.
Anne Carey, who also lives on the square and counts Rudd a friend, voted Labour, abandoning the Conservatives, whom she had backed in 2015. She said she voted in solidarity with the youth, who came out in unexpected numbers to support Labour in its crusade against austerity. Sarah Joynt, 28, said young people have observed the rightward turn taken by President Trump and feel compelled to demand something different.
In Kensington, hostility to May’s plan to pursue a severe version of Brexit was pronounced. The Conservative incumbent, Victoria Borwick, broke with her constituents, 68 percent of whom voted to remain, and cheered Brexit. That almost led Lorna Ghali, a 52-year-old artist, to vote Labour, though she chose not to because she said she distrusts Corbyn. Conservatives said it was the foibles of their incumbent that cost Conservatives the seat, as she squandered the 7,000-vote majority she enjoyed in 2015.
But Labour’s Emma Dent Coad, the local council member who unseated her by a razor-thin margin of 20 votes, said her victory owed to the mobilization of forgotten residents of Kensington.
“The Conservative government has pillaged people’s lives,” said Dent Coad, who managed an 11 percent swing to Labour. She held up her win as evidence that Labour did not need to move to the center to win traditional Tory seats, pledging, “If I can do it here, there is a way forward in future elections. We’re not a microcosm, per se, but we do have all types of voters here.”
Kensington is a spectacle of great fortune. But it is also a study in contrasts — an illustration of how inequality works in London.
Just steps from a stylish Kensington cafe frequented by David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister felled by Brexit, sits Trellick Tower, a 31-story, brutalist housing complex. Many of the units are subsidized by the state.
One of Trellick’s residents is Ed Davis, 38, who voted for the first time Thursday — for Labour. Pollsters said an even greater factor in Kensington than people who switched parties may have been nonvoters who chose to enter the fold for the first time.
Davis declared himself part of the “disenfranchised generation” — arriving at political consciousness under the premiership of Tony Blair, the Labour politician who fell into disfavor by supporting the war in Iraq.
With Corbyn, Davis said, he saw “a glimpse of something genuine.”
“I never felt like I had something to vote for,” said Davis, who owns a moving company. “But I saw the connection that Corbyn was having with the mass population, and I also got pretty offended by the Conservatives.”
Sarah Harper, an expert in population studies at the University of Oxford, said Kensington’s flip illustrates unique demographic changes in cities, as the neighborhood has seen an influx of people in their 30s and 40s, as well as a large overseas-born population.
This portrait of Kensington belies the idea that its more comfortable residents are knee-jerk Conservative voters, said the independent candidate for Parliament, James Torrance. The assumption finds expression in the saying that people “would vote for a donkey if it had a blue rosette on it,” he said, referring to the Conservative emblem.
That joins a long list of suppositions shattered by another unpredictable British vote.