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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Gerry Stoker

“English issues in the 2015 general election”

18 January 2016

University of Winchester

Prof Gerry Stoker, University of Southampton


This is an uncorrected transcript of talks given at the ‘English issues in the 2015 general election’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 18 January 2016. Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

The programme promotes me as an election analyst but as Rob Ford well knows it’s more my colleague at Southampton University – will Jennings- that deserves that acclaim. Today I report on some research undertaken with Will Jennings.  Will has been using the pathetic excuse over the last couple of days that he is getting married and this he claims has occupied his time. For this reason, you have me rather than him.

Our work is around the idea of there being two “Englands”, two “Englands” created by dynamics of global economic change which are creating in some areas cosmopolitan areas where citizens are on average relatively socially liberal, relatively pro the European Union, in favour of immigration and generally positive in their outlook for the future.  And that same dynamic is excluding some other areas from economic opportunity, from new types of jobs and from connection to the global economy. These areas might be labelled as shrinking or backwaters. They are much more socially conservative, much more fearful about immigration, much more anti-European Union and much more English in their sense of identity.  So what we argue is that in effect you’ve got two “Englands”, the cosmopolitan England, that is confident and outward looking, and the shrinking England which is anxious and inward looking.

Using data from the British Election Study in 1997 and comparing it to 2015 we show that the differences between these areas have sharpened. There is a growing polarisation of attitudes which is having an impact now but will increasingly impact on the future.  And in order to support that we’ve collected evidence looking at 50 English constituencies that looked a bit like Cambridge, because we thought that was an exemplar of a cosmopolitan constituency, and we looked at 50 constituencies that looked about a bit like Clacton because we thought that those were exemplars of the shrinking constituencies.  The 2015 figures demonstrate what I’ve been trying to show you, which is that there are clear differences on the key issues of whether or not you think various social issues and changes that have occurred are positive, whether you think immigration is an issue or a problem, whether you’re pro-European Union or not, and whether or not you’re broadly nostalgic in your outlook.  Now using the figures on the right hand side, they broadly support the argument I’ve made which is there are significant differences between the outlooks of cosmopolitan constituencies and shrinking constituencies.  If you look on the left hand side what those figures show is that there’s actually been shifts inside those constituencies, so that in 1997 for example it was the case that it was in the cosmopolitan constituencies that there was a slightly higher level of opposition to the European Union.  But by 2015 although the opposition to the European Union has gone off slightly within the cosmopolitan constituencies it’s gone on astronomically now within the shrinking constituencies. So our argument is basically that you’re beginning to see two “Englands” emerge, and now what I want to do is look at some indications of that. 

Is it that it’s only the shrinking left behind areas that are fed up with mainstream politics? After all, there the ones the feel the world has been moving against them so logically there might blame politics.  Our data   shows rather that people were alienated from with mainstream politics in both types of constituencies.  How is the divide affecting voting behaviour? Our data suggests that the Conservative Party proved far more adept at operating in both cosmopolitan and shrinking constituencies.  They lead convincingly in shrinking constituencies, but they also were able to have a very strong foothold in many of the cosmopolitan constituencies.  And I think it’s Labour’s biggest problem from our perspective that they’re doing perfectly OK but not quite achieving majority support in cosmopolitan constituencies but achieving a mere 16% in shrinking constituencies.  I think you can look at those tables and see exactly other outcomes you’d expect, which is UKIP doing better in the shrinking constituencies, the Greens doing better in cosmopolitan constituencies.  So the table confirms all your prejudices plus basically it’s interesting in that it shows that Labour in particularly having a problem, which is that it can’t seem to appeal across this cosmopolitan/shrinking divide.  And if we’re right that the cosmopolitan/shrinking divide is increasingly going to define an English politics then not being able to appeal across that divide is a major problem for a political party.  And the Conservatives have proved themselves far more adept at being able to do that.

So in terms of future impact one of the other things we did is just check out whether or not people in cosmopolitan areas were doing their politics differently.  And what we found was some evidence of the idea that they are beginning to engage with politics in a slightly different way and more online.  It’s not quite as stark as some of the other differences that we found but there is an interesting dynamic.  One of the other things we did was explore some current ideas about how people imagine their democracy, and there are different ways in which we tried to test people’s understandings of the way that democracy works.  One group of people you might refer to as critical citizens, who are highly educated, perhaps want to participate more etcetera, we expected to find slightly more of those in cosmopolitan areas, and we did but only slightly more.  And the others are called stealth democrats who are basically populists who think that the government should do exactly what they think and get very annoyed when they don’t do exactly what they think.  There’s a lot more behind both of those ideas, but broadly what we found was that the split was as we imagined but actually large numbers of people are just not engaging with politics at all. There is a connection here with the point Rob Ford made about dealing with the challenge of populism and then the difficulty of looking both ways yourself and getting caught out by an electorate that is increasingly looking for something that they’re calling an authentic form of politics.  And getting caught out trying to appear both cosmopolitan and populist to a shrinking constituency is a potential problem. 

For policymakers, the biggest problem is the policy solutions for cosmopolitan areas are almost the exact opposite for policy solutions for shrinking areas.  We have policymaking system that is strongly centralized in England   and it seems to be incapable of addressing difference to a great degree.  If we’re right about the significance of the social, economic and political divide emerging   then providing England with greater policymaking capacity to deal with the differences between areas is a priority.  Whether the current ad hoc, city region, devolution plans are up to the task is doubtful.  Yet the failure to deal the real issues that are of concern in these different “Englands” may be a challenge to all political elites.

Note: On early view online version of the article that expresses these arguments hopefully more fully and coherently is available at: 


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