The Centre for Towns is interested in understanding how public attitudes differ in different places; the concerns, aspirations and expectations of citizens living in towns and cities across the UK. Britain’s political geography is changing – and towns are at the centre of this tilting of the political axis.
Towns at the 2017 general election
At the 2017 general election, towns formed a central backdrop to the campaign, as Theresa May visited places such as Stoke, Mansfield and Bolton, while Jeremy Corbyn stopped off at Peterborough, Telford, Swindon, and Lincoln.
Some of the best results of election night for the Conservatives were found in small to medium-sized towns. In Mansfield, they overcame the national tide to secure a 6.7% swing from Labour. University towns and cities saw large swings in Labour – such as the surprise victory in Canterbury, won with a 9.4% swing. However, the swing against the Conservatives was far weaker in small and medium towns.
These electoral trends are linked to much longer trajectories of social and economic change, which have seen the electoral coalitions of both parties come under strain. Labour has tended to make gains with the younger, more educated populations of cities, whereas the Conservatives have tended to do better in former manufacturing towns and areas with older populations. To understand these dynamics, we need to get to grips with how people in different areas feel politics, society and the economy is working for them.
A survey of towns and cities
In partnership with Professor Gerry Stoker, the University of Canberra and Sky Data, we fielded a national survey asking people how central they and their area are to British society. We also asked about whether politicians care about them, and whether they feel they are doing better economically than other people or other areas. We divided the respondents into those who live in towns and those who live in ‘core cities’ (see Appendix).
The responses to the survey reveal some important differences between people living in cities and towns. Some of these findings will not be surprising, but they do highlight the sense of relative social, political, and economic deprivation felt by many in towns across the country.
In the figures below, we present the percentage of people saying they feel less central to British society, not cared about by politicians, and less financially well off than other people. We asked respondents to consider how central to British society they feel currently, and how central people like them were 30 years ago and how central people like them will be 30 years from now. By doing this, we can get a sense of whether people feel better or worse off – socially, politically, and economically – compared to the past and their expectations for the future.
On average, people living in towns feel that they and their area are less central to British society – with consistently more than 60% of people agreeing with this view. This is true both today and in their perception of the past and the future. Interestingly, people living in cities are more likely to perceive that they were central to British society in the past – whereas they currently believe they are substantially less central to society (with 60% agreeing) – almost drawing level with towns-dwellers.
This is potentially due to the fallout from the Brexit referendum, given that the populations of cities voted overwhelmingly for Remain and may view Britain’s impending exit from the EU as signalling the waning of their centrality to British society.
Interestingly, the gap between towns and cities is greater when people consider the area in which they live as opposed to themselves individually. Across both towns and cities, people increasingly feel their area is less central to British society than it once was. Over 70% of people living in towns believe their area will be less central to British society 30 years from now. As such our survey data suggest an erosion of perceptions of social solidarity.
The pattern for feelings of political inefficacy reveals rather more slight differences in the views of people in towns and cities (see charts on the following page). City dwellers are less likely to believe politicians didn’t care about people like them 30 years ago compared to town dwellers. However, more recently their view has shifted substantially – with an increase of near 20% in the number of people in cities saying politicians don’t care about people like them. Citizens’ expectations about the future are slightly rosier for people from both cities and towns. It is significant, though, that the current political context leaves the residents of both towns and cities feeling equally alienated by politics – and arguably the main parties – with little optimism about what the future holds.
Interestingly, the differences in cities and towns are starker in relation to the degree to which politicians are perceived to care about peoples’ area. On average, people living in cities are much less likely to believe that politicians don’t care about their area. Those living in towns are, in contrast, more likely to think politicians don’t care about their area – and won’t in the future. These findings are interesting in highlighting that people living in cities consider politicians pay more attention to their area than them as individuals. This hints at the importance of inequalities within cities – where the roads are not all paved with gold and where substantial precariat and service class workers live alongside more affluent people.
Relative perceptions of economic conditions are important in understanding how better or worse off people consider themselves or their area – both now and in the past and future. Our results again reveal a divide in perceived relative economic affluence (or ‘deprivation’) between towns and cities. People living in towns are, on average, more likely to believe they or people like them are worse off than other people – both in the past, present, and future.
Those from cities, on the other hand, are pessimistic about their economic future in comparison to the past or present – again, a trend that might be attributed to Brexit and the impact it is having on social attitudes. While Brexit may have represented the start of a rebalancing between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of globalization, there is economic pessimism across both groups.
Again, interestingly, there is clear water between cities and towns in how well-off people perceive their area to be. People living in cities are increasingly less likely to consider their area to be worse off – reflecting a belief that cities will tend to do better economically in the future. Towns, by contrast, have seen little in the way of a surge of optimism about what the future holds economically for them.
Together, our results suggest that towns are distinctively pessimistic about their social status and economic future. There is less difference in the degree to which people from towns and cities perceive politicians as caring about them, though people from towns are more likely to consider politicians to care about their area, perhaps reflecting the perception of the lost political status of towns.