Regional inequality

There’s been a lot of attention given to income and wealth inequality in politics recently. In particular, left wing populists like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders blame income inequality for the rise of authoritarian populism. The political establishment has pursued ‘neoliberal’ economic policies, which have only enriched the wealthiest at the expense of the wider population. They also blame income inequality for the relative lack of social mobility in the English speaking world. Moreover, income inequality leads to inequalities in other areas: educational attainment, health, children’s welbeing, etc.

But perhaps the left wing populists of today are misguided in their prognosis. Rather than income and wealth inequality between classes, I believe it is inequality between regions that is the primary cause of discontent in the developed world. Every significant political upset in recent years has been disproportionately supported in particular regions.

Consider first, the 2016 presidential election in the US. There wasn’t much of a correlation between income and voting intention, particularly after accounting for racial differences in average incomes. But there was a gulf between the regions, and especially between urban and rural areas. New York, a vastly unequal city, voted for Clinton by a thumping margin- she even won wealthy areas like the Upper East Side. But rural regions voted overwhelmingly for Trump, almost regardless of their wealth. It was where you lived, not how much you earned, that primarily determined how you voted.

A similar phenomenon has occurred twice in the UK. In the EU referendum, London, much of its commuter belt, Scotland and a few major northern cities voted Remain- these places were a mix of wealthy (Westminster, Elmbridge), and poor (Liverpool, Newham.) Most other rural areas, and virtually all of the Midlands, voted Leave, whether wealthy (Sevenoaks, South Bucks) or poor (Boston, Great Yarmouth.) Similarly in the 2017 General Election, a lot of wealthy, urban places voted Labour (Edinburgh South, Hampstead), while poor rural areas largely voted Conservative (Clacton, all of rural Lincolnshire.) If income inequality and poverty were the primary cause of dissatisfaction with the establishment, this shouldn’t have happened.

I could give examples from other countries. Poor areas in urban France voted for Macron, some middle class rural areas voted for Le Pen. In the Austrian election this year, the social democrats drew hardly any support from rural areas, whereas the populist right ‘Freedom Party’ drew hardly any support from the cities. Progressives either struggle to explain this, or in worse cases, dismiss rural voters as racist, ignorant and parochial. But I believe there are good reasons for rural voters to be particularly disillusioned.

Firstly, the rural United States. Its residents have been suffering from a decline in agricultural employment, deindustrialisation, increasing drug use, obesity and stagnating life expectancy. Meanwhile, the more snobby elements of the progressive movement view so-called ‘flyover country’ as culturally inferior and full of gun-loving religious zealots. It doesn’t help that Hollywood and much of American TV sings the praises of coastal conurbations like New York or urban California, while positive images of the Midwest and Deep South are hard to come by. Understandably, rural America felt as if the country’s economic and cultural elites resented them, and so voted for a man who offended their politically correct sensibilities. Never mind the fact that Trump himself is a New Yorker, he spoke the language of the country man.

Nowhere in the developed world is regional inequality greater than Britain ( This is mostly because London is so much more wealthy and successful than the rest of the country. London dominates politics, not only because it is the capital, but because politicians give it a disproportionate amount of attention. London is lavished with expensive railway projects (Crossrail, Thameslink upgrades), while much of the rest of the nation still uses diesel trains. It is also home to most of the media outlets, and so a huge number of fictional TV shows are set there. Also, London’s social liberalism and ethnic diversity couldn’t be a greater contrast to what is still largely an insular and ethnically homogeneous nation. Politically correct phrases and diversity quotas are not viewed as annoying, they are seen as products of London-centric thinking. To make matters worse, low interest rates and quantitive easing have encouraged investors to put their money in ever-valuable London housing, while much of the rest of the country is starved of capital.

As far as I can tell, neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Bernie Sanders have addressed the plight of their respective rural communities. They talk in vague terms about reducing income inequality, without acknowledging the role regional inequality in both economic growth and social attitudes has shaped recent events. This is partly because of personal circumstance. Corbyn represents a London constituency, as do all of the most senior Labour shadow ministers (John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott.) Sanders may represent Vermont, but he grew up in Brooklyn, and Vermont is hardly representative of most of rural America. In contrast, right wing populists have put regional inequality at the forefront of their campaigns. In the Britain, UKIP has campaign against London-centric politics for being too liberal and pro-European. It has also attacked Scotland for getting too much public money (something which I personally agree with.) In France, Le Pen railed against the Parisian political establishment for ignoring la france peripherique- the economically depressed parts of rural France. Trump deliberately campaigned in rural, working class areas, realising that there was a gulf in attitudes between them and urban Democrat strongholds on issues like immigration and gun control.

Overall, I believe it’s vital we reduce the gap between our regions. Turning around economically deprived areas will require years of concerted attention and investment. But there are a few things we can do in the short term. An obvious first would be to stop patronising and dismissing rural voters. Rather, we should take their concerns seriously. In the US, the places with the worst levels of opioid addiction voted for Trump, so Democrats should stop treating Trump voters as either stuck-up billionaires or racists. TV shows and films should represent all regions equally, not just focusing on the glamorous or multicultural ones. Another good step would be to devolve political power to the regions themselves. Rural and urban voters often have very different attitudes, so why not let local people decide what is best for them? In America this means that Democrats need to support devolving healthcare and social security. In Britain this means allowing local areas more control over education; even if rural areas want more grammar and faith schools (I personally don’t), a future Labour government would only fuel discontent if they obstruct them.

One Comment

  1. Very good points, Owen, and, as you say, not sufficiently emphasised. Some additional factors: firstly , education in country districts. Most country schools are poorly resourced, and one wonders what exactly is being taught in some small American towns. Secondly, the lack of facilties – small food shops, carrying only the basic products; scanty bus services ( if any at all) and having to get in a car every time you want to go to the shops, the higher cost of fuel in the country; dependdnce on subsidies from central government, and a lack of local control. It goes on. Some of my family live in the countryside or in smaller towns in England. They are fed up.

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