A New Type of Divide Looks Bad for Labour

Annabel Mellor
June 3, 2016
The town line in ABC's Once Upon a Time

After the UK General Election in 2015, there was widespread speculation that the deeply entrenched north-south divide between the Conservative and Labour parties was starker than ever. It’s true that 55% of Conservative votes were cast in the south, but the picture is more complex than that.

Labour had success in London as well as northern cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and Liverpool. The implication is that voters were divided not by geographical lines, but by rural and urban boundaries. The largest increases in Labour’s vote share between 2010 and 2015 occurred in ‘major urban districts’ – areas home to more than 100,000 people or where at least half of the population live in a large city.

In the year since the General Election, the balance of power between the parties has continued to shift, widening the rural-urban divide. The two most powerful politicians in the Labour party are Londoners. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been MP for Islington North for 33 years, while Sadiq Khan served as MP for Tooting before he was elected as Mayor of London in May 2016. Bristol, Liverpool and Salford also appointed Labour mayors in the May elections.

By contrast, Conservative leader and Prime Minister David Cameron is MP for Witney, a decidedly rural constituency in the heart of Oxfordshire. Most of his cabinet, including Chancellor George Osborne and Home Secretary Theresa May, represent constituencies with predominantly rural populations.

Voting map of the 2015 UK General Election (blue=Conservative; red=Labour)

The divide can largely be explained by looking at population demographics and the age profile of voters in rural and urban areas. Residents of rural areas have a median age of 45, compared with 37 in urban areas. Young urban populations also tend to be politically liberal, while older rural populations often lean to the right. The disparity played out in the vote share in the latest General Election (see map).

Rural constituencies face completely different challenges to predominantly urban areas. Cities face deeply entrenched social inequality and, in the North especially, the decline of heavy industries such as mining and steel that have led to unemployment and deprivation.

Both parties have acknowledged the rural-urban divide and touted policies intended to help city dwellers. However, the deepening split along town lines in the UK could make it harder for the already fractured Labour party to gather a majority in the next election.