Press Releases

Revealed: the great divide between towns and cities

New Economics Foundation sets out ‘manifesto for towns’ to bridge divide.

  • New analysis shows growing electoral divisions between cities and towns, with Labour gaining ground in cities and Conservatives winning in small towns
  • Report shows how electoral divide maps on to existing economic differences, with many cities benefiting from global growth while many towns get left behind
  • New Economics Foundation sets out manifesto for towns’ to bridge the divide

Towns and cities are becoming increasingly politically divided – with Conservatives dominating towns and Labour dominating cities, according to a new report by the New Economics Foundation and Professor Will Jennings.

The report, entitled Cities and Towns: the 2017 General Election and the social divisions of place, lays bare the political and economic divisions between towns and cities, with many towns left behind by global growth while cities reap the rewards. It finds:

  1. The 2017 General Election saw a 10.2% swing from Conservatives to Labour in English cities, but just a 4.1% swing in English small towns
  2. Since 2005, the Conservatives have increased their share of the vote in small towns from 34.5% to 48%, whereas Labour support in small towns has remained stable
  3. The more a place has experienced economic decline, the worse Labour tends to perform and the better the Conservatives do
  4. The more a place has experienced economic decline, the more likely it was to have voted Brexit in 2016
  5. The impact of a hard’ Brexit could intensify the electoral divide between towns and cities

Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Southampton, who conducted the electoral analysis, said:

A new divide is emerging that is fundamentally reshaping politics. The divide is between citizens whose lives are strongly connected to global growth and those whose lives are not. In geographical terms, it is between those from densely populated metropolitan centres and those who live beyond that world in suburban communities, post-industrial towns and coastal areas.

This research shows the extent of the political divide between towns and cities and the speed with which it is growing. It demonstrates that places which are not doing well economically are both more likely to have voted Brexit and increasingly likely to vote Conservative.

To truly understand British politics today, we have to look beyond demographics and attitudes and examine where people live. Place is where the true divisions in our society lie.”

The report also presents a manifesto for towns’ – an agenda for economic reform designed to bridge the gap between towns and cities. The New Economics Foundation makes four core recommendations:

  1. Build up local supply chains to give towns greater economic prosperity and cultural identity
  2. Improve jobs in the foundational’ economy in sectors such as retail, utilities, health and education which are present across the town-city divide
  3. Build local infrastructure to support thriving towns, including transport and housing which keep the local economy healthy
  4. Develop more decentralised political institutions to ensure places are not left behind through lack of participation by citizens

The New Economics Foundation’s Will Brett, co-author of the report, said:

The vote to leave the European Union in 2016 laid bare some of the urgent problems in our economy. For millions of people, these problems are expressed most clearly in their home towns.

Many towns are being left high and dry, disconnected from global growth and sidelined by our economy. These are places which people call home. They are infused with history and meaning, they serve as anchors for people’s identity, and yet they are being left behind.

We are working with people in towns all over the country to start building better local economies from the ground up. These are people with a deep desire to gain some control over the economy where they live.

But they need help. They need better local jobs, more sensitive local infrastructure and power resting closer to their home towns. Our manifesto for towns would help ease the divisions between cities and towns. It would be a first step in building a better economy which works for all, no matter where they live.”

Download the report.

Image: Marcus Peaston (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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