UK divided in two, again

2012-05-16 00:00

WHILE the leaders of Britain’s coalition government insist “we are all in this together”, austerity is being felt and viewed very differently across the country, reopening the big north-south divide which characterised the economy and politics in the eighties.

Broadly, the country is again dividing into the “Two Nations” that was part-title of a novel written by Benjamin Disraeli in the 1840s (Sybil, or the Two Nations, 1845). But rather than splitting by class, as in Disraeli’s novel, the country is dividing along a regional fault line that pits prosperous and coalition-supporting southeast England against the increasingly disaffected Midlands and north of England, Wales and Scotland.

In political terms, austerity continues to receive solid backing across the south of England, outside London, with 40% of voters saying they support the Conservatives, and another 14% backing the Liberal Democrats, according to the latest daily tracking poll published by YouGov. Support for the Conservatives remains above average in London, at 36%, but the party’s position has eroded and it now trails its Labour opponents, who are on 43%.

In the rest of the country, however, support for the Tories has slumped to 29% in the north, 23% in Wales and the Midlands, and a paltry 15% in Scotland. Labour (and the Scottish National Party north of the border) enjoy corresponding majorities over 50%, according to the YouGov poll.

Regional differences in support are long-standing, and reached their most pronounced during the 1983 general election, when the Conservatives led by Margaret Thatcher all but eliminated Labour’s parliamentary representation in the south outside London. But under Labour leader Tony Blair and Conservative David Cameron, both parties sought to cross over the divide, winning seats outside their traditional heartlands. Now the austerity programme has recrystallised those divisions.

Variations in support are unsurprising when differences in economic performance and the way austerity is affecting areas differently are taken into account. Northern and western areas of Britain depend much more heavily on public sector employment than the south, so austerity measures tend to have a much more severe impact on regional unemployment rates and prosperity. Austerity appears to be hitting northern areas much harder than those in the south of England.

The Financial Times features a fascinating analysis showing how central government cutbacks are hitting local government funding for areas across Britain. The worst-hit areas are almost all in the north (and London), while authorities in the south mostly suffer much smaller cuts. Regional economic disparities are reflected in the housing market, where London continues to report the most widespread house price increases, while prices fall across the rest of the country, but again with differential declines.

Political support for the government and austerity correlates directly with the differential employment and economic impact of the spending cuts.

In the first 18 months of the Conservative-LibDem coalition, from around May 2010 through until the end of 2011, the very distinct political reactions to austerity in the north and south of England were largely ignored by the media. Headline news coverage focused on the neck-and-neck polling of the coalition and its opponents. The implication was that Britain was evenly divided about austerity and the government’s track record. But as the Conservative Party’s poll ratings in the south have slipped, and those in London and the Midlands have fallen, the full extent of the regional divisions is being laid bare.

It is still three years until the next scheduled parliamentary election, but the strong regionalisation of voting bodes badly for the ruling parties. Much of the Tory vote is piled up (uselessly) in southern England, where the party will rack up big majorities. Labour’s support, at present, is more evenly and broadly spread, which would translate into more parliamentary seats.

While supporters of austerity claim “we are all in this together,” the view is not shared by voters. Britain’s experiences and perceptions of austerity reveal a sharper regional divide than at any time for 30 years, with powerful support in the south and strong opposition in the rest of the country.

Electoral arithmetic, more than anything else, explains why the government will almost certainly have to temper its austerity programme in the months ahead if it is to close the polling gap before elections due in 2015. — Reuters.

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