To win power, Labour needs to heal England’s geographic divide

Stemming the divergence of interests between cities and the rest of the country is vital for any progressive agenda.

Paddy Bettington
25 March 2020, 10.39am
A view of Great Yarmouth's Golden Mile from the top of the Atlantis Tower.
Norfolkadam, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

The 2019 general election laid bare England’s stark geographic divides. But are discussions of class, age, or homeownership enough to understand this divide, or does place itself have an impact on political values?

Analysis of how Labour voting patterns have changed since 1997 shows empirically what many have sensed intuitively: that this divide emerged long before Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and has been growing ever since.

Given the UK’s electoral system, the Conservative government’s recent overt attempts to expand their voter base, and now the political ruptures caused by the coronavirus, understanding the scale and cause of this divergence is vital to any progressive agenda.

How big is the divide?

Brexit has served to perfectly illustrate the tension generated by the discordance between the UK's electoral system and its clustered voting behaviour. While 52% of the UK population voted to leave the EU, an estimated 63% of UK constituencies had a majority leave vote. This disparity is equivalent to the difference between a majority of 26 seats in parliament and a majority of 169. Without needing to regurgitate arguments of how Labour should have responded to this situation, it is clear that as long as a majority of the population considered the last General Election to be about our future relationship with the EU, the party able to best associate themselves with Brexit had a considerable mathematical advantage.

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The discrepancy between the popular vote and parliamentary power arises from geographically clustered voting behaviour, but it is reasonable to assert that it also represents a clustering of values, even if the exact shape and limits of those values are murky. This clustering is not random, nor is it a difference between the North and the South, as is often lazily implied. In England, the most apparent axis of divergence is between cities and everywhere else. 62% of constituencies classed as being within a city voted to remain, while 78% of the remaining constituencies voted to leave.

But this pattern is not limited to the EU referendum or the present. The graph below shows the relationship between Labour's vote-share in the 1997 general election and the percentage of a constituency that falls within one of the UK's twelve "core cities", as categorised by the Centre for Towns. Each dot, coloured to indicate the winning party, represents a constituency. Its horizontal position shows the portion of the constituency which is a core city (almost always either 0% or 100%) and a dot’s vertical position shows the share of the vote won by Labour. The line of best fit shows how vote-share changes as the makeup of the constituency changes.

Based on the UK government's classification of constituencies as cities and towns.

There are two essential measures on such a graph: the intercept and the slope. The intercept, the point at which the trend line crosses the left-hand side, shows the average Labour vote-share where 0% of a constituency is a core city, in this case, 42%. The slope shows the increase in vote share we expect when 100% of a constituency i›s a core city; in this case, 12%. That is to say that in the 1997 general election, within English constituencies, outside of core cities the average vote share was 42% and in core cities, it was 56%.

It is of little surprise that Labour receives a high vote in cities, but how has this relationship changed over time, and with different leaders? The grid below shows this same graph repeated for different types of places horizontally and successive elections vertically. The first apparent trend is that as we move from left to right – from city to town – the slope flattens, suggesting a much smaller correlation between place and party preference. By the time we reach villages on the right-hand side, we see a strong negative relationship to voting Labour.


Potentially of more interest is the fact that as we move down the grid, the angled lines get steeper; both the positive correlation with cities and the negative correlation with villages become significantly more pronounced between 1997 and 2019. Particularly visible in the case of villages, we can also see that the closeness of the fit increases too, with the dots more tightly gathered around the trend line.

The two graphs below show the changing intercept (in orange) as well as the changing steepness of these lines (in green), for both cities and small towns. In effect, this shows the national baseline vote, plus the portion of the vote attributed to the fact of being in a city/small town. The purple line represents the net vote share when the two effects are combined. There are no constituencies composed entirely of small towns, so the Labour vote-share does not quite reach 0%, but in the most extreme case, Lewes, which is 69% small town, it falls as low as 6%.


These graphs show that since 1997, even as overall support has fluctuated between Labour and Conservative, the correlation between settlement type and political choice has increased in every election except 2005. Throughout two decades, four Labour leaders proposing radically different agendas, an absolute reversal of parliamentary power but with a spirited recovery along the way, the voting behaviour of metropolitan and rural areas have consistently diverged.

They also show that, outside of cities, Labour's 2017 election campaign did more to offset this correlation than any election under Blair's leadership, and that even the 2019 election defied the trend more than in 1997 or 2010.

With only 107 English constituencies sitting wholly within a city, the impact of this trend for Labour is that parliamentary arithmetic becomes harder and harder. To illustrate the effect, if Labour had managed to maintain the national vote share of their historic 1997 landslide, but those votes had been distributed according to successive elections, by 2019 they would have lost 41 seats in England alone. The vote share that gave Tony Blair a working majority of 60 in 2005, distributed according to the geography of 2019 could have facilitated a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Conversely, the 2017 vote share distributed as per 1997, would have given Labour an extra 18 seats in England and allowed them to form a coalition with the SNP. Without reversing this trend, by simply maintaining their current national vote share, the Labour Party should expect to lose seats in the next election.

What is causing this divide?

It is tempting to try and explain the diverging voting patterns of places solely in terms of other variables, from the uneven distribution of characteristics that correlate to political choice. Labour’s loss of working-class support has been offered as an explanation, but the correlation between social grade and place is unclear, and that between social grade and political choice even less so. The concentration of younger people in cities, combined with their tendency to vote Labour, is an appealing explanation. Age distribution has undoubtedly changed over the last 30 years. However, while current waves of progressive politics make the link between youth and leftism appear obvious, it was not always the case. It is only in 2015 that a clear correlation between age and political choice emerges, making it difficult to pin the changing geographic, political divide on changing age composition. The asymmetric rise in homeownership outside of cities or increasing regional inequality could be posited as convincing narratives, but these start to become characteristics of the constituencies, not the constituents.

Doreen Massey's 2007 book, ‘World City’, theorises that geography does have its own formative properties and characterises it as a proxy for a sense of 'place' which incorporates cultural and economic identities, limits of imagination, and distinct relationships to other places. The experience of living in a city makes an obvious case for the intrinsic value of multiculturalism, the arts, public services, the opportunities afforded by further education, and the potential impact of collective political action. Conversely living in towns and villages adds weight to the need for a reliance on personal forms of wealth and security such as homeownership and self-employment.

In 2019, Jeremy Corbyn expended significant political capital trying to popularise the idea that wherever you live, and whether you voted to Leave or Remain, you are affected by the same issues. This narrative was laudable and aimed to unify parts of the country pitted against each other by the media's portrayal of the Brexit story. It was particularly appealing to the left as it aligns with a Marxian theory that identifies relationship to capital as the primary axis of division in society. But is it true?

Living outside of London, regional inequality is probably far more evident than the inequality with a local area, while in London the precise opposite may be true. Buying a house is objectively more achievable in the Midlands than in London while finding a career that utilises the skills and knowledge gained from a university degree has a much higher possibility within a major city.

More importantly, in Massey's eyes, while people across the UK may feel themselves the victim of globalisation, London is unique in also playing a significant role in setting the terms of globalisation. While Londoners may bemoan the fallacy of trickle-down economics, the rest of the country is also rightly embittered by the fallacy of trickle-out economics. The elite are rich at the expense of the poor, the Global North is rich at the expense of the Global South, and London is rich at the expense of the rest of the UK. It is perfectly understandable that, in post-Thatcher Britain, resentment has grown towards metropolitan cities, and that other places might define themselves in opposition to what those cities come to represent.

This division is not a function of Corbynism or a shift to the left; it is the result of a plan by Thatcher to recreate the City of London as the sole driving force of our national economy. Typified by the battle over a vision for the future of the London Docklands area – which would ultimately birth Canary Wharf – and the abolition of the GLC, the reimagining of London as a centre of global finance was embraced by Tony Blair and, ultimately, acquiesced to by Ken Livingstone and the reconstituted GLA.

What next?

In what now seems a different political epoch, earlier this month the first Budget of the Johnson government made explicit gestures towards the ‘levelling up’ promised in their 2019 manifesto. Their efficacy and scale are disputed, but measures such as investment in public infrastructure and moving civil servants outside of London show a clear plan by the Conservatives to present themselves as a party who are now in favour of regional redistribution and public investment. Since then, the government has been forced to intervene in the economy and provide state support businesses and individuals on an unprecedented scale. Immediately, the effect of these developments seem dangerous for Labour, by making it more difficult for them to set themselves apart from the government. But at the same time, it acknowledges the failure of trickle-out economics and recognises the need for state intervention to effectively and fairly distribute resources where markets have failed to do so.

The analysis presented above suggests that rejecting Labour’s recent shift to the left would do nothing but hinder their electoral success. But it does show that promising to address the symptoms of regional inequality is not enough; to build the coalition of voters required to win an election under the first past the post system, Labour, and the left, urgently need a plan to stem the divergence of interests between cities and the rest of the country.

As we have seen, decades of neoliberalism and London centricity have only seemed to benefit the Conservatives. Anything that reverses these trends and makes visible the benefits of redistribution through public investment provides an opportunity for Labour to argue more strongly for those causes.

Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are relying on rural and suburban voters rewarding them for their recent interventions, but perhaps it will not play out this way. Could a glimpse of what these areas have been lacking for so long leave them wanting for more? Can Labour construct a narrative around the government’s new direction which realigns interests and halts the progression of our geographical divide?

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