Labour can’t win without bridging the city-town divide
To win back England's towns, labour must address the cultural, as well as economic, schism facing our society
The gaining of Enfield North was a rare opportunity For Labour activists to cheer at the television screen on the otherwise grim night of 7 May 2015. Two years later, its neighbour Enfield Southgate went the same way. In last week’s local elections, Labour also made gains in the London borough of Enfield, but in towns around the country it was a different story.
The gains for Labour in many London suburbs are emblematic of a fundamental realignment in English politics. These more affluent London constituencies now seem safely Labour – seats it can win even when it loses nationally – despite being close marginals in the early 2000s when Labour was winning huge parliamentary majorities. On the other side of the coin, the former mining community of Mansfield used to consistently return enormous Labour majorities but flipped to the Conservatives for the first time ever in last year’s general election.
Overall, this realignment has seen England’s nine core cities – even their wealthier quarters – become fortified Labour strongholds, while many towns, particularly those that have experienced economic decline, have swung to the Conservatives.
Despite Labour adding over 10 percent to its vote share in England at the 2017 general election, Mansfield is just one of 126 constituencies in which Labour suffered a net swing against it, to the Conservatives. Most of these are in towns in the midlands and north: Ashfield, Bolsover, Walsall North, Dudley North, Dudley South, Rotherham, Chesterfield, Burnley, Barnsley East, to name just a few more.
The party’s list of English target seats is more evenly balanced between north and south, but towns are absolutely crucial. Among the 63 English constituencies which feature in Labour’s top 100 targets, 49 comprise a town of at least 25,000 people, but are outside the core cities. It can’t win an election without them.
New analysis from Policy Network reveals the causes to be a combination of population change and changing voting behaviour between voters of different generations as well as class and educational backgrounds. Younger and graduate voters have become more inclined to vote Labour and older, less educated voters have swung to the Conservatives. As class-based voting has eroded, Labour has gained more middle-class votes while its lead among working class voters has fallen.
Crucially, this has had a geographic effect because of where these voters are, and where they are going. It has coincided with a ‘brain drain’ process of younger, better educated residents leaving towns in favour of core cities, particularly London, leaving older voters to make up an ever higher proportion of voters in towns. Labour has struggled most in parts of the country that have aged and seen increases in the proportion of white residents in working class occupations.
This is why the story of ‘cosmopolitan’ versus ‘communitarian’ is, and is increasingly, a schism between core city and peripheral town, which makes it Labour’s electoral problem.
How can Labour begin to bridge the divide? Each of the various traditions within the party has offered its own solutions to winning back towns, and there is a surprising degree of overlap between the different approaches. All focus on investment in local services, tax reform and good jobs.
On the pro-European centre left, Pat McFadden has called for a ‘Marshall plan’ for the working class, with education and particularly early years at the heart of economic renewal for ‘left behind’ areas. This would go alongside investment in the quality of infrastructure and the physical environment, alongside a robust defence of hard-won employment rights.
On the left of the party, John McDonnell has promised to develop a ‘British Mittelstand’, boosting high-investment, high-productivity firms, particularly in manufacturing. He was also an early advocate of the ‘Preston Model’ of using ‘anchor institutions’ – education providers, housing associations, the local authority itself – to help local, responsible suppliers through procurement practices and pension fund investment.
With so many on the centre left also expressing admiration for the Preston Model, the main point of contention is now over whether membership of the European single market precludes the investment, ownership models and procurement strategies that could help develop town economies.
But this is all focusing on the economic side of the issue. Building an economy that works for these places is undoubtedly a big part of the solution, but it’s also crucial to address cultural anxieties, and to try to bridge the cultural divides. Healing the schism in Labour’s coalition between town and city voters has to start from the recognition that it’s a societal divide as much as an electoral one. As it is now the undisputed hegemonic force on the left of politics, Labour has a responsibility: rather than picking a side or triangulating, it has to find a way to bring the country together: town and city, working class and middle class, ethnic majority and minority, young and old, leave and remain.
In its next programme for government, Labour must find ways to promote meaningful contact between groups. Those who don’t know or socialise with people outside their immediate area and people like them are more likely to have a ‘closed’ outlook, and it breeds distrust between groups. We see it in poorly integrated towns across England, and we saw it at the referendum, among remainers – with disparaging comments about leave voters – as well as leavers.
That’s why Labour needs to find money for English as a Second Language (ESOL) courses that have been cut to the bone since 2010, and for programmes that provide opportunities for interaction between school children such as National Citizen Service. It means retaining diversity requirements on faith schools, and it means experimenting with citizens’ assemblies made up of both sides of the referendum to discuss Britain’s post-Brexit future. It could even combine the Brexiteers’ demand for an ‘independence day’ bank holiday in June with the organisational energy and values of the Great Get Together, the campaign inspired by Jo Cox? Leave or remain, let’s have a day to celebrate what unites us.
But there are also things Labour can do while it remains in opposition. The leadership of the party can set an example with the tone it uses in debate, and do more to call out those that seek to divide within its ranks. It should advocate bringing the House of Commons closer to these communities. Even if a full relocation is not feasible, it should use the refurbishment of parliament to at least hold occasional debates in non-London settings. Above all, Labour should take advantage of the surge in membership across the country to fulfil Corbyn’s promise of a ‘social movement’ by getting serious about community organising. Labour should be walking the walk, not just talking the talk, on making life better in every local area.
Labour can reverse the decline in towns, but it has to get to grips with the wider schism that has opened up over the last decade or so, and understand that while Brexit is the immediate symptom, the issues are much wider. Only when it finds a path to bringing the country together can it bring its own voter coalition together to deliver a majority to transform Britain.
 As defined by the Centre for Cities: Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.