By John Kemp
LONDON May 8 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, re-opening the big north-south divide which
characterised the economy and politics in the 1980s.
Broadly the country is again dividing into the "Two Nations"
that was part-title of a novel written by Benjamin Disraeli in
the 1840s, when he was a young and radical politician, before he
went on to become prime minister in the 1860s and 1870s ("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 south-east England against
the increasingly disaffected Midlands and north of England,
Wales and Scotland.
NORTH-SOUTH VOTE DIVIDE
In political terms, austerity continues to receive solid
backing across the south of England, outside London, with 40
percent of voters saying they support the Conservatives, and
another 14 percent backing the Liberal Democrats, the junior
partners in the coalition, according to the latest daily
tracking poll published by YouGov ().
Support for the Conservatives remains above average in
London, at 36 percent, but the party's position has eroded and
it now trails its Labour opponents, who are on 43 percent.
In the rest of the country, however, support for the Tories
has slumped to 29 percent in the north, 23 percent in Wales and
the Midlands, and a paltry 15 percent in Scotland. Labour (and
the Scottish National Party north of the border) enjoy
corresponding majorities over 50 percent, according to the
Regional differences in the levels of support for the
government and its economic policies have been evident since
2010, but have become steadily more accentuated in recent
months, as political backing for the two governing parties holds
up relatively well across southern England but slumped
The regional divide was on display in last week's local
elections. Labour captured 823 seats across England, Wales and
Scotland, seizing control of 42 extra town halls (32 in England,
8 in Wales and 2 in Scotland). But almost all the captured
councils were north of an imaginary line from the Bristol
Channel to the Wash (36 out of 42). Just six were in southern
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 re-crystallised 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.
Of 23 counties and other statistical regions north and west
of Bristol Channel/Wash line, 17 have a higher than average
share of 16-64 year olds working in the public sector, according
to an analysis of data from the Business Register Employment
Survey (BRES) published by the Office for National Statistics
Across 13 areas south and east of the line, just 2 have
above-average public sector employment (and one of those is
deprived Inner London).
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 (and some are actually
unscathed) ("The well to do town that austerity forgot" May 7).
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.
"Reflecting the north/south divide further, the south east
had the least negative price balance ... with the west Midlands
and Wales recording the most severe price deteriorations,"
according to the April survey of the Royal Institution of
And differences in regional performance are not expected to
improve. London's independent and pro-business Centre for
Economics and Business Research (CEBR) forecasts that
unemployment will keep rising until 2016 "across the UK, except
in the south east, east and London" according to a report
published on May 8.
"The regions expected to be worst affected by rising
unemployment are those most dependent upon the public sector for
employment and so are most exposed to government cutbacks. These
include Northern Ireland, Wales, the North East of England and
Scotland," according to CEBR.
"The coming years will be a period of transition for these
regions and countries of the UK as public sector support is
withdrawn, a process that could help foster private enterprise
and job creation in the long run," the authors conclude ().
IT DEPENDS WHERE YOU LIVE
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
In fact, the daily tracking polls revealed sharp
differences, which mostly escaped comment. The coalition
continued to pile up massive support across southern England
(little hurt by austerity), in some cases approaching 50 percent
while polling poorly across the north, with the Midlands and
London somewhere in between.
But as the Conservative Party's poll ratings in the south
have slipped, and those in London and the Midlands have fallen
sharply, the full extent of the regional divisions is being laid
In the most recent tracking poll, Labour has a lead of 12
percentage points over the Conservatives (43-31 percent). Much
of this is being racked up in the party's traditional
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
Crucially, Labour has pulled ahead in the battlegrounds of
the Midlands, as shown by the tracking polls and a string of
council victories last week from Birmingham, Cannock Chase,
Derby, Dudley, Newcastle under Lyme, North East Lincolnshire,
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
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.