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Written by Will Jennings

Towns, cities and the tilting of Britain’s political axis

English village

Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Southampton, looks at the new political identities emerging in Britain and the split between rural and urban areas.

Since the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, British politics has been characterised by a pervasive mood of division and fracture – most visibly in the crystallisation of new, starkly opposed political identities – ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’. Brexit also revealed, but did not create, deep divides in the outlook of people living in different places, most strikingly between those living in towns and cities. The residents of densely populated urban centres, especially London, voted heavily for Remain while those in outlying towns and more rural areas voted in large numbers for Leave. This story of geographical polarisation can be exaggerated of course, since there were millions of Remain voters in towns and millions of Leave voters in cities. Nevertheless, the distinct brands of politics found in different places present major challenges both in terms of electoral politics and the particular sets of policy problems those places face.

These new geographical divides have been shaped by long-term processes of demographic and economic change. Economies of urban agglomeration have seen growth concentrated in cities (which have benefitted also from clustering effects in the global knowledge economy), while the expansion of higher education has seen outflows of young people to university towns and cities, many of who have stayed in search of employment and cultural capital. The populations of cities in particular have also been transformed through a period of rising immigration. These trends have left places on different tracks – with cities tending on average to be younger (and getting younger), more educated, more diverse, and more socially liberal, while smaller towns and villages are getting older, are relatively less educated, less diverse, and more socially conservative. As the former have become the engine of the 21st century British economy, the latter are thus experiencing relative outflows of human and economic capital. These processes have consequences for both politics and public policy.

In an essay in The Economist in September 2014, Jeremy Cliffe identified Clacton and Cambridge – just sixty miles apart – as archetypes of these contrasting economic and political worlds: a struggling Britain nostalgic for the past, contrasted with a future-oriented, open and dynamic Britain. Latterly, David Runciman has noted a third, nearby town – Peterborough – as a case that revealed the more complicated dynamics behind this political divergence, in particular as they related to the impact of education on social values.

Using data at local authority level, compiled by the Centre for Towns, it is possible to see how these three places have experienced contrasting trajectories over recent decades. The data reveals that Cambridge has become significantly younger and more diverse, with the old-age dependency ratio falling and the percentage of the population born outside the UK increasing substantially from 13% to 29%. Clacton, on the other hand, has not seen much change in the age of its population (with the old-age dependency ratio falling slightly, but the percentage of 18-44 year olds also falling) and has seen only a very slight increase in diversity. While Peterborough has become older, its level of economic activity has increased – making it very much not ‘left behind’ – while its non-UK born population has doubled from 10% to 20%.

Strikingly, while Cambridge voted to remain in the European Union by a margin of 74% to 26%, both Clacton (70% to 30%) and Peterborough (61% to 39%) voted by substantial majorities to leave. This might seem surprising given that Peterborough does not fit the popular stereotype of a ‘left-behind’, Brexit supporting town. It is has experienced relative economic growth over recent decades, and is home to a substantial population born outside the UK (nearly 20%). What distinguishes Peterborough from Cambridge is that just 20% of its residents hold a degree or equivalent qualification, contrasted with 47% in the historic university town (16% of the population of Tendring, the local authority in which Clacton is located, hold a degree). Thus, it is not just economic growth that divides places but also the nature of the local economic model and workforce that characterises them: Cambridge benefits hugely from being plugged into the global grid of the knowledge economy, through its high tech firms, science parks and university.

Education is an important dividing line in the new politics but it inevitably fuses social values with economics – and its effects are not evenly geographically distributed. For cities and towns, the relative concentration of graduates reflects the centripetal pull of higher education institutions or employers in particular places. Today’s divided politics cannot be reduced simply to the rise of identity politics but arises in different ways in different places through the complex interplay of economic, social and political change.

Places that have experienced relative decline in terms of economics and demographics are more likely to have swung towards the Conservatives in recent elections while they are also, on average, more likely to have voted for Brexit. Beyond electoral politics, the governance of those areas is beset by a range of acute policy problems – perhaps most notably pressures on public services due to ageing populations (for example in relation to social care and the NHS) and also in terms of skills shortages. Britain’s fracturing political landscape offers a powerful foretaste of the challenges awaiting those who govern it after Brexit.

  • About the author

    Will Jennings

    Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science at Public Policy at the University of Southampton and Co-Founder of the recently launched think tank The Centre for Towns. His research explores questions relating to public policy and political behaviour, specifically in relation to agenda-setting, public opinion, elections, democratic innovations, political geography, policy disasters, and anti-politics. He was a member of the independent inquiry instigated by the British Polling Council and Market Research Society to investigate the performance of the pre-election polls at the 2015 general election. He is co-author of Policy Agendas in British Politics (Palgrave, 2013), The Politics of Competence: Parties, Public Opinion and Voters (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and The Good Politician: Folk Theories, Political Interaction and the Rise of Anti-Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

    Will Jennings