There is a growing, and rather dangerous, divide in English politics* – the polarisation of Labour support into urban areas and of Conservative support into rural areas.
Comparing the election maps of Labour’s high watermarks of 1945 and 1997 illustrates this very clearly. In 1945 you could have travelled from London to Liverpool without leaving a Labour-held constituency. In 1997 you would have got as far as St Alban’s.
Why does this matter? It means that Conservative and Labour MPs listening to their constituents will hear very different messages about many of today’s key issues, such as HS2, windfarms, petrol prices and immigration.
People in urban areas like to travel quickly by train to other cities, they like sustainable electricity supplies without any local pollution, they have plenty of local buses and trains as an alternative to car travel and they are used to a multi-cultural environment. People in rural areas don’t want the HS2 track passing near their village when the nearest station is 50 miles away, they may not want a windfarm altering their view, they depend on their cars to get to work and they are unused to immigration.
Both sides of the equation are equally valid, but by an accident of geography the two major parties are each becoming representative of one side only. This cannot be a healthy situation and, indeed, is likely to be self-reinforcing. Each party’s policies are likely to favour their own supporters.
Although the Labour Party’s position in the opinion polls has recovered since 2010, the recovery does not seem to be at all strong in rural England. There is almost no sign of the divide being diluted.
We have missed a potential solution, which would be to redraw constituencies, not to follow urban-rural divides, but to mix urban and rural populations as much as possible.
The constituency map of England would then look more like a dart board with very long thin segments starting in city centres – but I expect that this idea will just get things thrown at it!
*Scotland and Wales each have their own distinct patterns. In Wales in 1945 and 1997 Conservative-held constituencies virtually stopped at the border. However, in Scotland the situation changed dramatically. In 1945 most of rural Scotland was blue, but in 1997 none of it.