Ben Goodair and Professor Michael Kenny reflect on the 2019 election, what it means for the current policy debate about towns, and what choices the new government faces in this area. They suggest the need for a more comprehensive policy approach to towns in England, rather than over-reliance upon direct funding from the centre, and propose the development of more locally rooted policies in education, transport and well-being.
The 2019 general election is fuelling plenty of commentary about how the UK’s political map has been ‘redrawn’ or ‘dramatically transformed’. One of the main dynamics behind this result was the notable swing to the Tories in former industrial towns in different parts of England, especially the north. This in fact represents the continuation of a longer term trend in British politics. Commentators, think-tanks and academics, along with the Bennett Institute’s own Townscapes Project, have for some while been highlighting the shifting voting patterns, demographics, and social values of many of our towns, compared to some of the largest metropolitan areas in England and Wales – where the Labour party performed much more strongly in the election just gone. For some time, the writing has been on the electoral wall for the Labour Party in towns across many parts of England and Wales.
These are the places in England and Wales where the largest swings from Labour to Conservative happened between 2005 and 2019:
20 Largest Swings from Labour to Conservative since 2005
2. Dudley North
5. Leicester East
6. Great Grimsby
7. Wentworth & Dearne
8. Doncaster North
9. Stoke-on-trent South
10. Normanton, Pontefract & Castleford
11. Walsall North
14. Cannock Chase
15. Wolverhampton North East
16. Hull East
19. West Bromwich East
Source: Sky News
Records were broken as huge shifts away from the Labour Party happened in these constituencies. Five seats had a swing in the vote from the Labour Party to the Conservatives of over 15%. And, as the following chart indicates, many of these happened in town-based constituencies.1
Source: House of Commons Library
The most dramatic swings happened in constituencies where large parts of the population live in towns, and the vast majority of these are located in the Midlands and the North of England.
Having won the votes of many of these places for the first time, the government will be keen to forge a policy agenda that can make good on some of the promises of the campaign, and show that it is committed to winning these seats again. We discussed previously the limitations of some of the Tories’ manifesto proposals to protect pubs and post offices in ‘left-behind towns’. The next Government has the mandate and incentive to develop a wider-ranging programme of interventions and to address the long-neglected needs of some of Britain’s most deprived, non-metropolitan communities.
This, we suggest, requires a package of policies that go some way beyond tax-cuts for local retailers. Empowering local economies involves improvements to connectivity and local public transport services, as well as investing in locally provided public services where appropriate or improving the reach of those that are consolidated in nearby places. Equally, rebalancing the UK’s uneven political economy requires tackling disparities in health and educational outcomes, as well as black spots in social mobility. Recent Bennett Institute analysis suggests that this is a substantial policy challenge requiring new and non-incremental approaches.
A new approach needs to bring the lens associated with the promotion of ‘well-being’ to bear in this area and to explore different ways of measuring and tackling some of the significant disparities in life chances and opportunity between towns and some of Britain’s largest cities. These are the conditions which fuelled the turn away from a Labour party which appeared unable to engage with the frustration and disenchantments which drove so many working-class voters to abandon it. A key test for the new government will be whether it can move beyond rhetoric about the ‘left behind’ and develop meaningful, wide-ranging and tailored policy packages that start addressing some of these inequities.
 The House of commons Library has produced a briefing that describes what type of conurbations make up constituencies. Here we categorise constituencies based on the type of place where most of their residents live. Swings are only reported for English and Welsh constituencies.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.