North and south
Nuggets of interest abound for Labour in Policy Exchange’s latest publication, Northern Lights, which declares itself nothing less than an ‘attempt to update our maps’, doing away with ‘long-defunct ideas’ about why people vote. Despite the title, it examines not just the north of England but the Midlands, the south outside London, and the capital, making occasional forays over Offa’s Dyke and Hadrian’s Wall.
The wide-ranging report seeks, among other things, to segment the country along the ‘diagonal divide’, a Severn-to-Humber line splitting the country into a greater south which now leans towards Tory-Liberal Democrat races and a greater north which comprises largely Labour-Conservative competition. ‘Scotland is another country’ altogether, it says: most contests here pit Labour against the Nationalists, with a scattering of SNP-Tory battles.
Another way of divvying up the country comes in the form, not of the long-lamented north-south divide, but of an urban-rural gulf: ‘There are 80 broadly rural seats in the north and Midlands,’ it states. ‘The Conservatives hold 57 of them … No northern problem for the Tories there – their problem is in the northern cities.’ But Policy Exchange is concerned this political gulf separating town and country has been insufficiently explored. Progress magazine made its own attempt to do so last December with our ‘rural Labour’ special edition, which looked at how the party has won in the countryside in the past and how it may yet do so again. In that issue, referring to Labour’s preoccupation with ‘southern discomfort’, an ongoing piece of work continued by Policy Network, John Curtice of Strathclyde University noted that ‘this urban-rural gap can only partly be accounted for by demographics … Constituencies in rural Britain are no more middle class than their more urban counterparts’ but ‘some aspects of the rural social environment are typically less conducive to Labour voting’, such as a relative lack of social housing and a greater conscious sense of self-reliance prevalent in country living. Curtice, who readers will know from election night coverage, may have a point: Policy Exchange, in seeking to explain evolving voting behaviour, notes the rising power of the ‘neighbourhood’, where political judgements are formed by what people see happening locally and by word-of-mouth influence exerted by like-minded neighbours.
Strikingly, though, the old familiar north-south divide does come back into play. YouGov polling for Northern Lights found that southern English working-class voters are more likely to vote Conservative than northern middle-class ones. Labour should beware, though: elsewhere class is back with a vengeance. ‘In recent elections there has been a growing “class gap” in turnout,’ the report warns. ‘Middle-class voters have become more likely to vote than working-class voters … Labour voters are more likely to feel “their” party used to represent them, but no longer does so.’
English democracy has also been absorbing IPPR of late. In England and the Union: How and Why to Answer the West Lothian Question, the thinktank swings behind an ‘English grand committee’ system, versions of which have been devised by Tory grandees Malcolm Rifkind and Ken Clarke and which would in part answer the vexed question. But the tank goes further, arguing that this will be necessary but insufficient to give a greater voice to what it has previously called ‘the dog that finally barked: England as an emerging political community’.
But where to locate greater English devolution? IPPR is clear that the 10 standard regions ‘have little local resonance, and in any event their administrative structures are being dismantled. It can only mean local government, perhaps banding together with some additional elected governance (say, a city-region mayor). This has worked for London, and there is no reason why it cannot work for Manchester or Birmingham.’ Progress also backed city-region mayors, though the government spurned this idea. How the drive to localism fits in with the regional and national and proto-federal jigsaw slowly being pieced together is a complex matter, but tanks aplenty are currently working overtime to understand where the voters are, where they might be going and what sort of country they see themselves living in.
elected mayors, ippr, localism, north-south divide, northern England, Policy Exchange, Policy Network