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The Bifurcation of Politics: Two Englands and a Divided World

The Bifurcation of Politics: Two Englands and a Divided World

Doctor Will Jennings and Professor Gerry Stoker outline their work on an England increasingly divided along economic and social lines

• Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker

In England, America, Europe and democracies elsewhere, a bifurcation of politics is transforming the essence of contemporary politics. This fracturing of politics is being driven by a dynamic of global economic development which means that many countries are experiencing uneven economic trajectories within their boundaries. Citizens are increasingly divided between those living in ‘cosmopolitan’ areas of growth and those residing in ‘backwater’ areas of decline. These diverse trajectories of economic experience and social location are driving the political choices made by citizens in two, substantially opposite, directions.

So what is going on? Our recent study, published in The Political Quarterly, provides some important clues. We identify two Englands. In ‘cosmopolitan’ areas we find an England that is global in outlook, liberal and plural in its sense of identity, while in provincial ‘backwaters’ we find an England that is inward looking, relatively illiberal, negative about the EU and immigration, nostalgic and more English in its identity. We see a parallel dynamic occurring in other democracies. 

Our study provides, for the first time, the detailed evidence needed to map and characterise the bifurcation of politics.  It develops profiles of the theoretical trajectories of ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘backwater’ destinations - based on Jeremy Cliffe’s characterisation of Clacton and Cambridge as exemplars of these trends. ‘Cosmopolitan’ settings tend to be found in growing, prosperous and diverse parts of cities. ‘Backwaters’ tend to be drawn from aging coastal towns with a history of light rather than heavy industry, sometimes characterised by the decaying vestiges of Victorian seaside resorts.  The study uses survey data from the 2015 British Election Study (BES), as well as from the 1997 BES, to compare whether and how the differences between parliamentary constituencies fitting the ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘backwater’ profiles have narrowed or widened over time.

The core findings are:

  • In 2015 we find that the population of ‘backwater’ areas are significantly more negative about immigration and Europe—and are significantly more negative than the average voter, too. ‘Cosmopolitan’ citizens are, on average, more socially liberal and more open to change, immigration and global demands. Citizens in ‘backwater’ areas are more socially conservative, and also more likely to identify as English or at least as equally English and British.
  • There is a growing divide between the two Englands. When we compare attitudes in these locations with equivalent measures from 1997, the gap in attitudes on immigration has increased. The shift in opinion on Europe is such that there has been a reversal, where ‘backwater’ areas had previously lagged behind on support for leaving the EU in 1997, in contrast to their strong Euroscepticism of today. These findings point to a fundamental shift in the politics of these areas.
  • On equalities for minorities there has been a significant polarisation of attitudes. In 1997, respondents in ‘backwater’ settings were marginally less likely to agree that equal opportunities for ethnic minorities had gone too far. By 2015, there was a large gap between the two populations in the other direction.
  • We also see a growing divide in terms of expressions of identity in these areas. In general there has been a shift towards Englishness as distinct from Britishness, with the percentage of respondents saying that they are English, not British rising from 7 per cent to 13 per cent.

These dynamics are having, and will continue to have, substantial repercussions for the politics of England, and – it follows – the UK. Based on the results of the 2015 general election it appears that the Conservatives are more able to appeal to these diverging constituencies. They have a strong foothold in both ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘backwater’ areas (receiving 34 per cent of the vote in the former), and notably outperform Labour in attracting votes in ‘backwater’ constituencies by a ratio of more than 3:1. In contrast, Labour is marginally ahead in ‘cosmopolitan’ areas. Our findings are consistent with the framing of those who see a key dilemma for the Labour Party is that it is losing socially conservative voters to Ukip and others while consolidating support among more educated and wealthier metropolitan liberals.

Bifurcation influences politics now and, as it intensifies in its effects, it will, we think, define politics in the future. It played a crucial role in the outcome of the EU referendum in the UK on 23 June, and will influence its aftermath – as these divergent locales come to terms with Britain’s future. It played a big part in the American presidential election in 2016. It has, and will, find further reflection in the surges of right-wing and left-wing populism that are sweeping through Europe.  Neither ‘cosmopolitan’ nor ‘backwater’ citizens are big fans of mainstream politics-another key finding of our detailed study - so the challenge for democratic politics is to find a way of responding to and delivering for the diverse experiences and challenges of these two types of area. Democracy’s uneasy relationship with market-oriented capitalism has got a new twist. The most successful politics will be one that can appeal to both the winners and losers of capitalism’s latest creative and destructive wave.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

This blog was originally posted by Political Quarterly: