Break down the result of the referendum and you will see that the growing division in England and Wales is not between North and South – or even left and right – but between towns and cities. We are increasingly a country made up of two groups of people whose shared experiences, political priorities and outlook, on the surface, are united on the surface by very little at all.
The difference, as the academic Will Jennings put it, lies in ‘Two Englands’ – one that believes the future will be better than the past, and another that believes the past was better than the future. Increasingly, cities play host to liberal optimists while towns are home to conservative values and traditions where anxiety is commonplace. This is why, on a whole host of areas – from immigration and the EU to crime and human rights – the country is increasingly tugged in two very different directions.
It wasn’t always like this. Hostility to Britain’s EU membership more than doubled outside of cities between 1997 and 2015, widening the gap with fairly consistent views in cities. Academics like Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin have charted the growing frustration in towns and a sense that mainstream political parties no longer speak for them.
This should be no surprise. Cities have dominated political and economic thinking for decades. Too often, as with Brexit, cities are wrongly treated as a proxy for national opinion. City leaders have a national voice, but there is no comparable platform for civic leaders in towns.
Consequently, the issues that matter to the tens of millions living in towns – good bus services, green open spaces, thriving high streets – are almost entirely absent from the political debate.
This is fuelled by an economic model that treats cities as engines of growth which, at best, drag surrounding towns along in the wake of metropolitan prosperity. It means life has got harder, less secure and less hopeful for so many people in towns in recent decades. The result has been attitudes to immigration, social security and the EU to harden. With Osborne’s devolution model built on this trickle-down approach from cities to towns, there is little chance this will change.
This poses a profound challenge for Labour whose membership is increasingly unrepresentative of the country as a whole. This has got worse in recent months, with new members more likely to come from cities, often home owners in well-paid jobs. With five times more members in Islington than a town like Wigan, there is a risk that Labour’s perspective will be skewed away from the needs and aspirations of people in towns across the country.
But what looks like a crisis could – and should – be an opportunity. Labour holds power in the majority of our great cities in England and Wales; areas of strong economic growth, where jobs and opportunities are available and society is largely multicultural, tolerant and diverse. We also represent many of our great towns, each with their own character, shared history and experience, where the sense of community is palpable and people are strongly invested in the local area, intrinsic to their own future and their families.
Our enduring failure to give voice to both groups has allowed growing frustration to spill over into support for far-right parties, and this will continue for as long as we fail to act. The impact of unchecked free markets and unresponsive government has fuelled similar anger across America and the rest of Europe. While Hillary Clinton won almost 3 million more votes nationally than Trump, it was fewer than 100,000 voters in towns across Middle America who felt abandoned by the Democrats and put Trump into the White House, while across France it is town dwellers who swell the ranks at Le Pen rallies.
Unless we address fundamental concerns over security and the economy, Britain will remain divided and people will continue to find an outlet for those fears through populists who offer simple answers to complex challenges.
To seek consensus in modern Britain is not to seek to split the difference with politicians like Donald Trump, to somehow concede that he might have a point. It means believing instead that nobody is unreachable or irredeemable, and that allowing one half of Britain to fight the other will lead only to further battles, no matter who wins in the short term.
Extremism is both easy and destructive. Britain’s future lies in the tougher option – to refuse to write people off, and to remind ourselves that the power of politics is our ability to persuade and negotiate a shared future. That future must speak for both Englands within a United Kingdom, united by the shared values and principles that are still prevalent on both sides of the divide and become more important by the day.