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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 pressures created in the changing global economy which means that many countries are experiencing internally uneven economic trajectories. Citizens are increasingly divided between those living in cosmopolitan areas of growth and those residing in backwater areas of decline. Divergent trajectories of economic experience and social location are driving the political choices made by citizens in two, substantially opposite directions.
There is scattered evidence to indicate what is happening from a range of recent political events.
- In Austria, a coalition of centrist cosmopolitans from the left and the right enabled the independent Green candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, to narrowly defeat Norbert Hofer of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria. It was in the successful cities that the Green message hit home and it was in the backwater areas that fears of immigration had grip.
• In the U.S., Donald Trump has tapped into a vein of political anger and nativism to win the Republican nomination, while for the Democrats Bernie Sanders has stubbornly challenged Hilary Clinton with a populist message from the left. Trump’s base is among the blue collar disaffected men and his challenge to win the Presidency will be to go beyond that base.
• In London, Sadiq Khan won a convincing victory over Zac Goldsmith in the Mayoral election, while Labour performed anaemically in local elections elsewhere – with its performance well short of what might normally be expected of an opposition at this point in the electoral cycle. London liked the cosmopolitan political message promoted by Khan. That message did not work as well for Labour elsewhere.
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 more 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 for the first time provides 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 growing, prosperous and diverse parts of cities. Backwaters tend to be 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 is significantly more negative about immigration and Europe—and significantly more negative than the average voter, too. Cosmopolitan citizens on average are 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. In 1997, backwater areas did not disproportionately favour leaving the EU; today they exhibit strong Euroscepticism. 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 than cosmopolitans 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 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. Cosmopolitans are substantially less likely to identify as English, and the gap with backwater locations has risen slightly over the past two decades.
These dynamics are having, and will continue to have, substantial repercussions for the politics of England, and — it follows — the UK. The results of the 2015 general election suggest that the Conservatives are currently 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. In the short run these divisions will play a crucial role in the outcome of the EU referendum on June 23rd and its aftermath, as these divergent locales come to terms with Britain’s future. The same divisions will play a big part in the American presidential election in 2016. They will also find further reflection in the surges of right-wing and left-wing populism that are sweeping through Europe.
Neither cosmopolitan or 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 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.