It may seem like a lifetime ago, but it has in fact been just 16 months since Theresa May took office. We knew then, that with Brexit on the horizon, much of her premiership would revolve around the negotiations with the EU. However, few predicted just how all-encompassing the process would become: today, in the halls of power across Westminster the only issue on people’s mind is ‘deal or no deal’.
Theresa May’s transformation from ‘strong and stable’ to ‘weak and wobbly’ has opened up a vacuum in leadership which has allowed factions from both camps to publicly fight it out. Remainers in particular see an opportunity to derail May’s original plans for a hard Brexit. Whilst I am not entirely unsympathetic to their arguments - there is no doubt that a bad deal could do significant damage to the future of the UK - there is a risk that with so much focus on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, our politicians forget to address the causes of Brexit.
Clearly, people’s reasons for voting to leave the EU were many and varied. Some were fed up with the scale and pace of immigration. Others cared about national sovereignty and British identity. These are issues to which Brexit is quite clearly part of the answer. However, many - perhaps even the majority of leave voters - simply felt that the status quo was not working in their favour.
There has been much discussion about some of the divisions that manifested themselves on the Brexit vote: between rich and poor; young and old; graduates and non-graduates. But, one of the most pervasive cleavages that has emerged - which incorporates all of these dimensions to some degree - is between those who live in urban areas and those who live in post-industrial, rural and cost towns.
This is fundamentally a story of economic and social stagnation, with many people in towns across the UK feeling cut off from the benefits of globalisation and economic growth. This is borne out by recent polling conducted by the newly created Centre for Towns, which was launched by Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, earlier this week. This shows that nearly two-thirds of people in cities feel that their area will be better of in the future, whilst over half the people in towns fear that things will get worse.
This is more than just a perception: people are right to be pessimistic. Analysis undertaken by the Social Mobility Commission shows people in social mobility “hotspots”, which are overwhelmingly located in a small number of urban areas and their wealthy commuter belts, are significantly more likely to get on in life than those in “coldspots”, largely to be found in (often post-industrial) rural, costal and satellite towns.
The reality for many people in these ‘coldspots’ is low paid and precarious work, poor housing and less effective public services. A recent article in the Financial Times investigated this is detail in Blackpool, finding that “More than a tenth of the town’s working-age inhabitants live on state benefits… Antidepressant prescription rates are among the highest in the country. Life expectancy, already the lowest in England, has recently started to fall.”
This resulting divide - sometimes referred to as the ‘two England’s’ - was a key cause of the Brexit revolt. Research by IPPR found that 97% of the social mobility ‘coldspots’ set out by the Social Mobility Commission voted leave at the referendum. NEF recently found that the Leave vote share was 20 points higher in those places that have experienced the greatest declines in terms of human and economic capital in recent decades.
This should serve as a warning to Theresa May and the political classes at large. There is no doubt that a bad deal with the EU on Brexit will accentuate the economic and social divides set out in this article. But, its equally true that getting a good deal, will not resolve them. Government - which has historically focussed its policy initiatives on cities, whether that be devolution of powers, public service reform or investment for regeneration - must harness the levers of government to address people’s underlying concerns in these communities.
What might this look like? The economist, Diane Coyle, recently took a good first stab at answering this question, calling for government to combine more money with devolved powers for post-industrial, rural and costal towns, so that local policymakers can invest in the skills and training, infrastructure and transport most likely to make a difference. The state’s “fundamental purpose” is to provide people with insurance against macroeconomic risks they can’t avoid, she says. “And it hasn’t been working since the early 1980s.”
On the steps of Downing Street on her first day as Prime Minister, Theresa May signalled that she understood the challenge facing these communities and was going to act: “…we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us. That will be the mission of the government I lead…”. She must now return to this vision and use whats left of her dwindling political capital to put in place bold policies to turn this rhetoric into a reality.