The UK and its citizens are divided across the spectrum. Leavers are pitched against remainers, the young against the old, the affluent against the impoverished, graduates against non-graduates, but perhaps the biggest divide is between the towns and the cities. For years governments have seen and tried to use cities as engines of economic growth, and hoped that their increased prosperity would fund and carry along surroundings towns.
Towns have been left behind, especially when it comes to politics, and definitely when it comes to the Labour Party. Labour was a party founded on the working class focusing on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, but in recent years has become a party of the middle class, of ‘socialism fans’ as it were. Under Corbyn, working-class support for Labour rapidly fell to its lowest point ever. That’s not to say that town equals working class and city is equivalent to the middle and upper classes, but there is a strong correlation between the two.
Labour is currently stockpiling member support and votes in strongholds and major cities like London and Manchester, and this was as evident as ever in the election. The general election in June saw a 10.2% swing from Conservatives to Labour in cities but was just a 4.1% swing in towns. Labour made twice the gains among younger, middle-class voters in cities than older, working-class voters in towns, and gained the most ground in seats with increased capital. This is not just a recent trend, as the Tories have made a net gain of 13% over Labour in towns since 2005.
Labour’s hoarding of city votes is also wasted votes. In 2010 Labour won 29% of the vote delivering 258 seats, and in 2017 won 262 seats from 40% – four million more votes, but just the four more seats. In contrast, the Conservative vote is more spread out, and their resurgence in places like Scotland and Wales allowed them to convert a two-point lead over Labour into one of nearly 60 seats. It’s no surprise due to cities being more young, diverse, and liberal, but this is being heightened due to factors such as the north brain drain analysed here by Ian Warren.
Labour’s fetishisation of London is not new, nor unique, but has been heightened and strengthened by the current leadership. The majority of Labour members live in London – five times more members in Islington than Wigan – and both the senior cabinet ministers and NEC are dominated by those from London. The speakers at the Labour party were dominated by those from London constituencies, and at a time where working class and town voters are turning towards the Conservatives, our party is beginning to look an awful lot like the London Party.
Another factor in all this is Brexit, as Labour ran rampant in the Remain strongholds, and seats with 60%-plus votes for Leave showed a swing to the Conservatives due to the influx of 2015 UKIP voters. Will Jennings calls it ‘Two Englands’, one that believes the future will be better than the past, and another that believes the past was better than the future. These voters believe that the Conservatives are the ones serving their interests, and ironically, it’s the struggling workers in deprived and declining seats who are being attracted to the party of cuts to public services and welfare.
Far too many places across the UK fail to offer decent jobs and housing, and they have bridges to burn regarding stagnant wages, immigration, families, communities, and tradition. Outside of cities, public support for leaving the EU doubled between 1997 and 2015, and the issues that matter to these people have been forgotten in mainstream politics, especially by Labour. Whilst there is shared agreement about investment in public services, there are hugely contrasting views on topics that caused Brexit such as national security and immigration.
These problems are not limited to Labour, but by centre-left parties across the globe. In America, the Democrats have had huge issues in towns and rural areas, and it was this that swung the crucial swing states towards Donald Trump in the end. In France Le Pen swept up voters in the northern and western towns, and more recently social democratic parties have found themselves left behind in places such as Germany, Netherlands, and the Czech Republic.
So, what does this mean going forward? The electoral balance is in a precarious position, where 67 seats sit within two percent swings, compared to 33 before this year’s election. Just a one percent swing to Labour would see them capture 21 seats, the same swing to the Tories would see them win nineteen. It’s no understatement to say that towns hold the key to the next election. 33,000 voters in 45 town constituencies could have handed Corbyn the keys to Number 10 in this year’s election, and it will be no different the next time the public head to the polls.
This isn’t just the case in England; across Scotland, the SNP’s decline in towns has left both the Tories and Labour hot on their heels. It was Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Tories performances that handed the party a slim majority, and these crucial town seats across Scotland are up for grabs. Whoever excels north of the border is likely to be forming the next government. The decline of the smaller parties and the return to two-party politics has removed much of the complexity, and in most constituencies, it’s a straight shootout between Labour and the Conservatives.
Labour and Jeremy Corbyn need to find a way to win back their traditional voters, those in working-class towns across the country. They cannot keep ignoring the issues that matter to these voters, not just inequalities, but globalisation, automation, devolution, immigration, national security, and the economy. Labour needs to come up with a bold vision to take Britain into a new era with Brexit, and expand their horizons outside of the capital into the towns they need to win.