Beyond the Metropolis: Who speaks for Britain’s towns?Published Thu 9 Mar 2017
Harry Quilter-Pinner, research fellow, IPPR
We have long known that Britain’s record on social mobility – crudely defined as someone’s ability to get on in life regardless of their background – is poor. OECD figures show that people’s earnings in the UK are more likely to reflect those of their parents’ than in any other advanced country – and that this relationship has grown stronger, rather than weaker, over time.
However, recent events – in particular the Brexit vote – have added a new urgency to this agenda. In particular, the vote highlighted the increasing geographical divide in the UK, and new analysis by IPPR, the UK’s leading progressive thinktank, demonstrates the link between people’s ability to get on in life and their decision to vote leave: 97 per cent of the least socially mobile local authorities voted to leave the EU, compared with just 13 per cent of the most mobile regions.
There has always been a moral case for intervening to improve social mobility. Likewise, Boston Consultant Group recently made the economic case for change, estimating that poor social mobility will cost the UK economy up to £140 billion a year in wasted potential by 2050. But this new evidence suggests that there is also a strong political case for acting on limited social mobility.
If the benefits of the status quo are not felt across the country then people are prepared to rebel against it. There is a very real risk going forward that, without significant improvements in daily life for the majority, people begin opting out of the political system entirely or turn towards populist and anti-democratic leaders.
However, these statistics do more than just push social mobility back up the agenda: they also change the way we must think about it. In particular, they highlight that place – meaning where someone is born and brought up – is an increasingly pervasive dynamic in the social mobility story.
This is demonstrated most clearly by analysis from the Social Mobility Commission that ranks every local authority in Britain based on its record on social mobility. This shows that the UK is increasingly divided between social mobility ‘hotspots’, which are overwhelmingly located in a small number of urban areas and their wealthy commuter belts, and ‘coldspots’, largely to be found in (often post-industrial) rural, costal and satellite towns.
People in places like Blackpool, Derby, Great Yarmouth, Middlesbrough and Doncaster increasingly face low-paid and precarious work; poor housing; less effective schools; and, ultimately, shorter lives.
While, the idea that the place in which you are born impacts your ability to get on feels intuitive, there has been a big debate in the academic literature about whether good neighbourhoods nurture success, or whether they just attract those who would succeed anyway (and vice versa).
Thankfully, emerging evidence collected by economist Raj Chetty in the US is helping to answer this question. His research suggests that there is a causal relationship. Indeed, he finds that people with similar backgrounds and ability levels earn on average 31 per cent more, and were also more likely to attend college, if they grew up in prosperous areas than deprived ones. This is the so called ‘neighbourhood effect’.
This has big implications for policy. Historically, policymakers have essentially allowed the free market to drive growth wherever it deems most viable – as well as the type of growth we have – with people encouraged to move into areas of prosperity if they want to take advantage of it. A Policy Exchange report from 2008 took this argument to the extreme, suggesting that places like Liverpool, Sunderland and Bradford were ‘beyond revival’, and that residents should move south.
The problem with this diagnosis is threefold.
- First, the data on internal migration shows that – for a variety of reasons, not least spiralling house prices in British cities – that it is rarely possible for those born in social mobility coldspots to move into mobility hotspots.
- Second, even if we put policies in place to increase internal migration for these groups, all this would do is leave a smaller group of people in even more deprived areas.
- Finally, people have a profound connection with their hometowns, families and communities: they shouldn’t have to move away to make a decent living.
A much bolder and more interventionist solution is needed if we are to genuinely address this problem.
Theresa May seems to get this, arguing that her government’s mission is to make Britain a country that works for everyone: ‘I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow’. These are strong words. However, the prime minister must now turn rhetoric into reality.
While her government has taken some small steps in the right direction – such as her push on mental health and Justine Greening’s ‘Opportunity Areas Policy’, which will provide extra funding for schools in social mobility hotspots – the government is yet to put forward a comprehensive and bold reform plan.
There is a very real risk that the immediate priority of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU takes over completely. However, it is even more vital that the government addresses the causes of Brexit – among which lack of social mobility is prominent. Giving people hope and purpose to communities across the UK that have gone without them for far too long should be the government’s highest priority going forward.
Consequently, IPPR is launching a new programme of work on this topic, with the objective of setting out how Britain can improve social mobility within a decade. We will set out what a bold policy manifesto covering education, health, welfare, housing and industrial policy might look like, with the hope that this will help both present and future governments really get to grips with this problem. [<<back to top]
Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan
Last year’s Brexit vote exposed the depth of the divide between our towns and cities. We have long understood the differences between North and South, but the chasm exposed by Brexit was remarkable. Across England, and across the UK, look North, South, East or West and the picture is the same. London, Brighton, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Norwich, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Despite their many differences, cities across Britain voted resoundingly to Remain. But outside of those metropolitan centres, the picture is very different.
In one sense, it always has been. Diverse, liberal, fast-changing cities have often been at odds with the stability, (small-c) conservativism and communitarian values that are much more prevalent in towns.
And too seldom have we heard those latter voices. In 1971, the author Jeremy Seabrook bucked the trend, travelling to Blackburn – not to tell a story about the lives of the men, women and children who powered the Lancashire mills, but to allow them to speak for themselves. Their fascinating accounts were set against a backdrop of a declining textile industry, recent immigration from India and Pakistan, and huge social change that was both liberating and unsettling for the people living through it.
The stories they tell – about immigration, stagnant wages and families and communities in transition – are as resonant now as they were almost half a century ago. And Seabrook’s conclusions are equally relevant. Blackburn, he said, is ‘not a town full of racists, any more than it is a stronghold of liberal humanitarian values’.
This is the communitarian as opposed to the liberal England found in towns and cities across the country, each with their own very real problems but with strengths in equal measure.
I was born in one of those great cities, Manchester, that gave us the first free library, the free trade hall and the Battle of Peterloo. Like many cities it has since become – not least thanks to the last Labour government – an area of strong economic growth, where jobs and opportunities are available to many and society is largely multicultural, tolerant and diverse.
I have made my home in Wigan, a town with a strong history of solidarity. It gave the world Gerrard Winstanley, stood shoulder to shoulder with Indian cotton pickers, and came together in the 1980s to support striking miners. It symbolises the importance of towns in Britain, 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’.
Perhaps because of this, I am acutely aware that towns and cities have always had clear differences. But increasingly it feels that these are two countries. Two groups with different experiences, priorities and conflicting political outlooks, united on the surface by very little at all.
And much of this is recent. Over the last two decades, the attitudes of those living in towns have shifted significantly, widening the gulf with cities. On LGBT rights, immigration and a whole host of areas, the differences are stark. But nowhere was this more apparent than in changing attitudes towards the EU. Between 1997 and 2015, support for leaving the EU more than doubled among those living outside cities. It took less than 20 years for Britain’s towns to transition from seeing the EU as part of the solution to part of the problem.
This is not unique to Britain. In America, the Democrats have long been aware of the party’s ‘rural problem’, but few predicted that 100,000 voters, predominantly in the rural parts of crucial swing states, would gift Donald Trump the presidency. Across America, ‘populous urban centres’ voted for Hillary Clinton by a factor of almost two-to-one – the same ratio by which voters here in Britain, living in similar urban centres, voted to Remain as opposed to Leave. We are two countries – each facing very different but equally symbolic and ideological choices – facing growing division.
In France, they call this the ‘halo effect’. In the US the ‘big sort’. Here, the philosopher Julian Baggini calls it ‘hefting’ – a farming term, actually about cows, that describes the process by which populations naturally sort themselves into territories and communities they feel comfortable in. For some of us it’s the liberal and ever-changing cities; for others, the community and stability of the towns.
These are increasingly, as the academic Will Jennings puts it, two Englands, each with their own distinct set of attitudes and outlooks. One that believes the future will be better than the past, the other that the past was better than the future.
It has become fashionable to call the latter of these groups the ‘left behind’. So many politicians and commentators, including me, have lapsed into this politically convenient shorthand. But, in truth, it simply doesn’t resonate with the millions who live in towns.
Because towns aren’t wastelands where people have nothing left to lose and dream of escaping to the cities. Even the 10 most deprived towns in the country have better access to public services, housing and a decent environment than some of the most affluent areas. These are often precisely the reasons we choose to live there: because we value the sense of community, stability and quality of life it affords.
To label those who make this choice ‘left behind’ is as blinkered as it is patronising. What’s more, it implies that they have been left behind by the progress of affluent cities, which airbrushes the reality of city life for so many people – a daily battle against poverty and hardship, with a front-row seat to wealth and opportunity but no share in its advantages.
And it is misleading because it tells us, falsely, that Brexit was a last throw of the dice for people who have nothing. But on doorsteps across the country, it wasn’t in areas of complete social breakdown that people shook with anger during the referendum, but precisely in those communities where people still have much left to lose. This vote, it was felt, was the last line of defence for the things that matter.
What is striking about these two distinct groups is how much they share an overwhelming distrust in the political and economic system in this country. The crisis in politics is far more widespread than one that affects only those who have nothing. It is felt just as strongly by those who benefit from growth and opportunities as it is those who have fallen victim to it.
But for those who prioritise rootedness, stability and continuity, there has been a growing sense that not only has mainstream politics failed to comprehend, speak for or respond to the changes that have occurred in recent decades, but it is deeply disrespectful towards their lives and choices.
We see it in the contempt for patriotism, attachment to place and desire for continuity. Too often life in towns is characterised as a dull, stifling, provincial life, inferior to the alternative. And so too often when we talk about ‘listening’ we mean ‘listening so we can explain to people what is best for them’. Do we understand the damage that does? It doesn’t simply reflect the gulf but actually helps to widen it.
And this has left a political vacuum in towns that populists have willingly filled.
It is built on a political system in which too many of us are simply not represented. Cities have dominated political thinking for decades, denying voice to the lived experience in towns. Too often, as with Brexit, cities are wrongly treated as proxies for national opinion. And while city leaders have rightly gained a national voice, there is no comparable platform for civic leaders in towns.
For Labour, with five times as many members in Islington as Wigan, is it any wonder that the issues that matter to millions of us are almost entirely absent from the national political debate?
This is amplified by a media that (with some rare and important exceptions) is overwhelmingly London-centric, with opportunities for talented young journalists to break through from the regions becoming increasingly scarce and much likely to get worse as local newspapers disappear.
It’s 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 has meant that life has got harder, less secure and less hopeful for too many people in towns. The cause is economic but the impact is social and political.
This deeper sense of loss is encapsulated for me in the demise of Upper Morris Street Working Man’s Club in my constituency, the headquarters for my first election campaign. Once a thriving hub in the community, the collapse of the mining industry and the replacement of the nearby rugby league stadium with a Tesco led to its decline, and eventually it was demolished. Today, that site is a McDonald’s, employing young people on minimum-wage, zero-hours contracts. It tells a story of what has been lost: those shared institutions, as Jesse Norman said, that ‘shape us as we help to shape them’.
It’s impossible to ignore the destructive impact that global capital has had on our sense of belonging, sweeping away the familiar and with it, as Paul Kingsnorth puts it, our ‘mooring in space and time’.
But this wasn’t just an accident, it was a clear political choice, summed up for me in these words:
‘I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer…
‘The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition.
‘Unforgiving of frailty.
‘No respecter of past reputations.
‘It has no custom and practice.
‘It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.’
This is the vision that Tony Blair set out in 2005, enabling a consensus that outlasted New Labour through Osborne’s Tories. To concentrate investment in the cities and embrace that culture of change, and in doing so stake out a future for the country that is alien to the values of millions.
As a result, cities have dominated political and economic thinking for decades. And while that focus and investment in the Labour years led to huge improvements in many lives in the inner cities, it is economically, socially and politically unsustainable.
New times require a convincing alternative that rejects both a rose-tinted nostalgia for the past and the false inevitability of a future that millions of us don’t want.
This will demand political leadership. For Labour the task is not only to reject populism, but to learn how to defeat it. This false and damaging distinction between a single, uniform sovereign people and an illegitimate, unresponsive political elite denies the growing rift between two groups of people; the messy, often contradictory reality that demands the very political leadership that is being currently being delegitimised.
This leadership must be both political and emotional. Anxiety is now the overwhelming political problem that progressive politicians must solve. How to offer security, hope and solidarity in the face of the loneliness and isolation, an economy based on flexible labour markets that undermines our jobs and wages and treats us as disposable good, at a time when our favoured tool – the state – is too often seen as ‘other’ to people and their efforts. It manifests itself in low pay, job insecurity, youth unemployment, older people growing old without dignity and warmth – anger, division and alienation.
In truth it is about power – who has it and who doesn't. It’s why we need local devolution that is real and meaningful, so decisions about the things that matter to us are made much closer to us, with our involvement. Not just the transfer of power from one group of men in Whitehall to another in the town hall, but a politics based on consent, built from the ground up.
The current devolution model is built on the same tired trickle-down model from cities to towns that has proven so destructive. The plan for the first and most radical devolution city region in Greater Manchester is to invest in infrastructure projects that carry people into Manchester to access decent jobs, while building a ring of warehouses around the outskirts, offering minimum-wage, zero-hours, zero-opportunity jobs to the rest. This must change. It has been enabled by the current settlement that allows for no scrutiny, no accountability and no voice for the people. In short, no power – replicating the national dilemma.
It needs a national response too. As IPPR’s ‘Britain in the 2020s’ project has shown, new technologies – artificial intelligence, automation, the Internet of Things –have the potential to create an era of widespread abundance, or a second machine age that radically concentrates economic power.
This means holding power to account wherever it is found.
In the market, where capital is increasingly unaccountable, a handful of companies own our data and control vital public goods, with some, like Walmart, larger and more powerful than nation states.
It sounds futuristic, but it is a major contribution to the frustration and powerlessness felt in towns across the country. I saw it for myself a few weeks ago in one of my local community pharmacies. Labour are currently rightly calling on the government not to cut grants to community pharmacies. But a central problem is not the state, but the market – the control that a small handful of companies have over the distribution of drugs. If the same company that distributes our drugs also owns Boots, what hope do community pharmacies have of competing for them? The result is that when drugs are scarce, my elderly constituent cannot walk to his local chemist and get the flu drugs he needs.
But this sense of powerlessness is true, too, of the state. It demands a different approach – not simply a safety net, nor a clunking fist, but an enabling state that intervenes early and often, walking alongside people, handing them power, at the most difficult times in their lives. Both sickness benefit and Sure Start matter, but competing over versions of our past is inadequate. It neglects the future.
And we need to use the power of government to change the country. Not to seek to eradicate our differences, but to ensure that those who hold power in one area of life cannot use that power to appropriate power in another. Over the course of my lifetime this concentration of power in a few hands has created an overwhelming sense of anger and frustration – because, if inequality of power in one area compounds inequality of power in another, then where is hope to be found? Those who have more money can buy better education, healthcare, access to justice, a voice through the media and influence in the political system. This cannot – and must not – be allowed to continue.
For Labour, this means remembering what we are for. In recent years we have come to define our sense of purpose solely around the redistribution of wealth. In an age of austerity this has left us with an identity crisis. But redistributing power in its widest sense was always our mission, of which wealth is just one important part.
What is missing is not simply state funding, but a critique of power and where it lies. And this is the challenge for Labour – to rebuild and renew, in the face of defeat.
To build on the consensus across the Brexit divide – the shared desire for global co-operation and much more local control.
This is the simple part – to discover what we have in common and resolve rather than compound the growing gulf between people’s lived experiences in towns and cities.
But I began with a warning about the cultural gulf. Of these, one of the most difficult will be the issue of immigration. And I believe my own town offers a clue as to how this might be reconciled.
Not long ago, Serco decided to use the Britannia hotel in a quiet village in my constituency to house asylum seekers. Overnight, more than 100 young men arrived without warning. Far-right organisations mobilised, and locally, people wanted to know who they were, how long they were staying, what support and security was in place and whether vicious rumours spread by fascist organisations were true. It took action from the police and community leaders, with my support, to change this. Not long afterwards, we launched a Syrian refugee appeal. We had 36,000 bags of donations in two weeks. The challenge for politics is to enable people’s intrinsic compassion to prevail over the very human sense of insecurity – to ensure that people have control over the things that matter in their lives. Handing block contracts to Serco who buy up cheap accommodation and care only about the bottom line is a major cause of this sense of powerlessness. And in the face of overwhelming anxiety, it is no wonder that borders have become a symbol of ‘social order, family life and common decency’. As Cruddas and Rutherford argue in that same article, ‘immigration refracts all of these anxieties into a brittle national sentiment’, which we must either seek to understand ‘or abandon this terrain to the forces of the right’.
On a whole host of areas the central question facing Labour is this: can these values be reconciled?
Too often in the Labour party the easy part is where we start. And too often it is where we stop. I don’t want to shy away from the big uncomfortable questions for Labour. I want to run towards them. In the towns we have done too little to stand up for, this is the least that they deserve.
And currently only two options are currently on offer: a confrontational response, characterised by President Trump and Ukip, where parties seek to perpetuate division; or compromise – Theresa May’s approach – seeking to enable two sides with irreconcilable views to live uneasily alongside one other.
Neither of these is sufficient. Neither offers the hope of a Britain that embraces its difference. Neither suggests a vision that combines pride in our past with optimism for the future.
This will only be achieved if we shape the future in the interests of both Englands and their important, and distinct values. This is why over the coming months I will be out of Westminster, not just listening but analysing trends, enabling people in towns to talk about their own priorities on their own terms, and learning how we shape the future so it works for all of us. This is the England, as Orwell said, ‘that is only just beneath the surface’, and it must be heard. [<<back to top]