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The Brexit vote and 2017 general election exposed the deepening geographical divide in British politics: between places that have prospered in a globalised knowledge economy – predominantly major cities – and those on the periphery, towns and rural areas.

In the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, core cities tended to vote Remain, while towns – with the exception of university towns – tended to vote Leave. In the 2017 general election, Labour made large gains in cities, picking up wins in constituencies such as Kensington and Chelsea, while the Conservatives experienced substantial swings in towns, taking seats like Mansfield and Walsall North against the tide of the national swing.

Similar dynamics are apparent in the USA, where support for the Democratic Party is increasingly concentrated in densely populated urban areas, while the Republicans have made advances – most notably in the 2016 US Presidential election – across rural and small-town America. In Europe, too, support for radical right populist parties has often been focused in peripheral rural areas and post-industrial towns.

These political divisions map onto patterns of relative decline, driven by long-term processes of social and economic change. Deindustrialisation, economic agglomeration, the expansion of higher education and immigration have all contributed to a fundamental fracturing in the demography of towns and cities in Britain. Major cities are becoming younger, more ethnically diverse, more educated and better able to exploit opportunities afforded them by creative, knowledge and digital sectors, even when substantial parts of their population are in precarious work. At the same time, the populations of towns are aging, less diverse, and possess lower levels of skills and education. Coastal and post-industrial towns in particular suffer from high rates of deprivation and health problems, as well as lower levels of social mobility.

These divergent demographic trajectories underpin differences in values and identities: on average, the sorts of people who live in towns tend to be more socially conservative, uncomfortable with social change and are more likely to identify as English. While city-dwellers tend to be more socially liberal on issues such as same-sex marriage or immigration and more plural in their sense of identity.

A recent report by Hope Not Hate with the Centre for Towns mapped out some of these deep divides. Concern or hostility towards immigration was highest in the former industrial towns and isolated coastal communities that have experienced sustained economic decline. Major cities and university towns were much more. While public disaffection with politics – and the political class in Westminster – is widespread, it intensifies the further away one gets from London. Similarly, people from towns are more likely to believe that politicians don’t care about them or their area. As such, the growing division between cities and towns is creating opportunities for a politics of resentment to take hold, driven by populist attacks on the political and economic ‘establishment’.

How can the political parties buck these trends and build a wider base of support? Neither party can afford to ignore those places and people where it has been losing ground. The Conservative Party quickly needs to find a way to enhance its appeal to younger professionals comfortable with social change and more liberal in their outlook. Doing so in the context of Brexit will be extremely tricky, especially since it threatens to undermine the reputation of the party for competent handling of the economy. Becoming distracted with US-style culture wars and hyped-up controversies over freedom of speech on university campuses – egged on by certain parts of the media – will only exacerbate the party’s lagging performance with younger, more socially liberal voters.

At the same time, the Conservatives need to deliver for those places that have increasingly turned to them following extended periods of decline. There otherwise is a risk that further disappointment will lead many voters to look to other parties, or simply stay at home.

The Labour Party, on the other hand, faces substantial challenges in rebuilding their appeal in towns to older, working class voters suspicious of the party’s record on immigration, the economy and its ability to speak to the re-emergence of Englishness as a political identity. At the same time, Labour’s fudging of its position on Brexit increasingly is putting its support in its city strongholds at risk among Remainers, who are turning to the alternatives offered by the more clearly pro-European Greens and Liberal Democrats – as was demonstrated to devastating effect in the recent elections to the European Parliament.

While these geographical divides make it increasingly difficult for any party to construct broad electoral coalitions, the underlying demographic fractures are also creating divergent sets of policy problems. With ageing populations, shortages in skills and qualifications, and poor transport connections, many towns face acute problems in terms of public services, pressure on social and health care, and structural obstacles to economic growth. Cities also face a distinct set of challenges in terms of the cost of housing, congestion, and sizeable localised inequalities. Without rebalancing our national approach to economic growth there is a risk that the political divides discussed here will deepen – leaving our politics increasingly fragmented and volatile.

Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Southampton. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Identity crisis?. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.