England’s North-South Divide Starts to Look Irreversible

The north of England is averse to voting Conservative whereas Labour struggles in the south.

Graffiti in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, April 1, 2011
Graffiti in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, April 1, 2011 (Walt Jabsco)

On the eve of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s death in April, there were people in Liverpool singing, “Let’s all do the conga, Maggie is no longer.” In the Berkshire town of Reading in southern England, people sung back: “We still pay your benefits!” It’s almost as if England had split into two nations.

Northern England has long had greater affinity with the Labour Party whereas the south voted loyally Conservative. However, in recent years, this seems to have become less of an observation of political reality and rather a sign of a divergent nation. Trying to marry the two parts back together will be a hard task, if it can be done at all.

Over the years, the Conservative Party has been expelled from most of the north of England and almost all of Scotland. Labour has been virtually driven from the south. If constituency sizes are equalized, the political map from recent elections shows the north, as well as Scotland and Wales, almost entirely in red while the south is deeply blue. Only in the Midlands, where there is still a mixed economic situation, do the two parties seem to be in real competition.

Under Thatcher, manufacturing industry was almost eradicated from the former industrial heartland of northern England while services industries in the south blossomed. Under consecutive Labour governments, there was a surge in public spending which benefited the north tremendously. The incumbent coalition government is reducing such subsidies, however. The cycle has led to the impression that Labour used to south to sweeten the north and the Conservatives do the opposite.

But this is not the whole story. In wealthy northern areas such as South Wirral, northerners from the highest social class are more likely to vote Labour than are southerners from the lower classes. In the south, whatever their wealth, people are more likely to consider themselves middle class and therefore more likely to vote Conservative.

In Southampton, a southern port struggling with industrial decline, the Conservatives dominate the city council and Labour only has a majority of 3,000 in one of cities’ constituencies. Just as Wirral, despite its well-to-do-ness, displays the Labour tendencies of the wider north, so down-in-the-dumps Southampton reflects the politics of the south.

Although the south lacks the northern Labour tradition, the region is not as averse to voting Labour as the north is to voting Conservative. Southerners can be quite happy to vote Labour when they like what it offers, or at least many were in 1997 when Tony Blair came to power. Alastair Campbell, the former premier’s spin doctor, recalls the party’s astonishment at the results. “Seats were falling that we would never have imagined standing a hope in hell of winning.”

Since this is a political divide, so too must the remedy be political. In 2010, for example, there were about as many Labour members in the five Manchester seats as in the eighteen constituencies that make up Essex. The Conservatives have not one councilor in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle or Sheffield.

Elected mayors, provided they have real powers, can break the monotony of regional party machines: consider the string of Republican mayors in deeply Democratic New York.

Overall though, it will take time and effort to try to create party bridgeheads in opposition strongholds. It would mark a radical change from the party spilt and nowadays prevalent acceptance of a Labour north and a Conservative south.

However, the change would be no less extraordinary than curbing union power or privatization was in 1979. Both the Conservatives and Labour claim to admire the way Thatcher remade the country. They could try to do it, too. The prize is worth it. The party that first smears its colors all over the map will be in a position to reknit Britain’s heart and soul on its own terms.