As liberal professionals move to big cities, they’re transforming Britain’s political landscape

The Northern Quarter, ground zero for gentrification in Manchester. Image: Getty.

The economy of the UK – and the world – is concentrating in big cities and away from many of the towns and cities that grew on the back of a single company or industry. This means that the way jobs are distributed is uneven and spiky (see map below). Should we expect the strong market forces underlying this change to make the political map spikier too?

Big, globally connected cities like London are home to a vertiginous pile of high-knowledge jobs within firms that are part of a highly competitive, complementary and productive business environment. The breadth and height of this pile attracts highly skilled people from across the UK and world who make the pile even higher.

The high-knowledge, tradable services these workers create go on to provide the wealth and demand for other goods and services, that mean big cities are also attractive places for the low-skilled and migrants – from sandwiches at lunchtime, to cab rides, cleaners and caretakers. Big cities also offer abundant opportunities: cars aren’t a necessity and culture, public services and community are often free and on your doorstep.

These agglomeration effects of big cities drive this attraction to rich and poor alike, and help to explain why our richest cities are also our most unequal. And it’s why many places feel left behind as more of our lives and economy concentrate in our big, evolving and growing cities away from many of the other concentrations of land, labour and capital that drove the industrial revolution.

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To the consternation of many geographers, planners and politicians this process has been largely unaffected by decades of government attempts to push growth around the country in the pursuit of convergence and national equality.

But one group of people who may not be worried by this is Labour MPs. In the 2015 general election in England, the collapse of the third party and first-past-the-post voting saw Labour and the Conservatives increase vote share and seats, and control 525 of 533 or 98.5 per cent of English seats with 72.6 per cent of the votes. Labour picked up big city Liberal Democrat seats, while Conservatives picked off the rest, including smaller urban areas mainly in the south.

At this year’s election, this pattern only intensified. Politics is becoming a lot spikier for those Labour MPs outside of the bigger and more highly educated metropolitan areas, and those in the suburbs of these cities – something we can see clearly in Outer London and around the core of Birmingham

As Daniel Finkelstein writes, Labour’s message is more immediately appealing to middle class city dwellers than its traditional vote in midlands and northern towns and smaller cities. These voters in areas that voted heavily to leave the EU are now being targeted assiduously by the Conservatives. It is no coincidence that they are likely to live in areas without access to the knowledge economy, and where globalisation and immigration are not viewed as the symbols of progress.

The way individuals sort themselves in and out of different cities that drives economic spikiness seems to also drive and feed off the political and social sorting that comes with it. And it probably shouldn’t be surprising that this sorting – most commonly of people with degrees to cities with the biggest job opportunities – should bring political as well as economic divergence.


More skilled people moving to a city changes its workforce and improves local economic performance and wages, while having the opposite effect in the place they left behind. If we think education, income and the acceptance of living in a big city tell us anything about a person’s political views, then we should expect these compositional changes to affect election results too.

How does this sorting work? As mentioned, job opportunities are the major pull factor that sorts the UK by skill level. This is most clearly seen among university leavers, with the sorting being strongest among those leaving the best universities with the best degrees, and weakening with those with lower level degrees. The impact high skills have on city economies is evidenced by the well-intentioned but wrong-headed attempts of many university cities with big student populations but weak economies to retain graduates with inducements and incentives to stay.

The lifestyle demanded by a big city also plays a role in sorting: the daily grind, or joy, of living cheek by jowl, anonymous among the crowd, undivided by private cars, front doors or green spaces. This can be expected to put off many of those otherwise tempted by the jobs and amenities, while being positively embraced by some, and endured of the rest.

The social and cultural composition of a city is also affected by sorting. Young people from smaller towns or the countryside may wish to be part of the throng in the city, hooked up to arrays of cultural and sub cultural options within a deep pool of people like them. And more tolerant attitudes in a big city might be attractive to anyone feeling out of place in the countryside or urban hinterlands.

Plenty of people raised in cities or who begin their careers in them weigh the costs more heavily than the benefits and get out as soon as possible, never to look back from smaller towns or the countryside. Whether they are priced out or pissed off, their departure somewhere cheaper or cheerier changes the composition of the city and its economy and electorate.

And once in a city, this natural rubbing up against different people, groups and cultures might begin to have an impact on political views:  self-reliance, the role of the state, immigration. In the US, Cass Sunstein argues that the polarisation of political views has been deepened by the greater sorting of people into blue states and red states, blue cities and red country.

Sorting takes place within cities, too. It is no act of God that sees coffee shops spring out of the ground in some parts of town to be filled by buggies, while others are preferred by different cultural economic or ethnic groups. People sort to areas that offer the amenities and jobs they want, and by doing so increase demand for these amenities, the supply of which will grow in response.

The constant pursuit of personal preferences produces the emergent phenomenon of a more sorted city, creating areas of heterogeneous homogeneity that over time change how constituencies vote at Westminster or local elections. This could happen even if not a single person voting changes the way they vote – only where they vote.

So as Labour piles up votes in the big cities while the Tories stay in government, should we be concerned for our cities and the national economy?

The Conservatives already hold seats in fast-growing cities in the South. Yet if they don’t start to win in big, mainly Northern, cities, and still maintain their grip on rural seats, then there is a risk of a Tory government ignoring the big cities that are the engines of our economy.

If they seek to limit or spread London’s growth and reduce the investment in homes, transport and infrastructure that the city and South East needs to accommodate that growth, then yes, it will be worry. London is already responsible for 30p in every £1 the UK raises in economy taxes. Recent policy rpoposals will only increase the country’s financial dependency on the capital even while its international position deteriorates.

If Labour maintains its current course – achieving high levels of support among the young, ethnic minorities, public sector workers and metropolitan, socially liberal voters – then it had better hope that more Londons, Manchesters and Bristols arrive soon. Its best policy might be to pursue massive expansion of housebuilding around those cities to make the jump from other parts of the country to these cities easier (well, that and a boundary review based on population rather than the electoral register).

And for the Tories, if the precipitous drop in home ownership and hope of ever getting on the property ladder among the young has anything to do with the strong support for Labour among this cohort, then maybe massive expansion of housebuilding of their own in these cities would help to reenergise Margaret Thatcher’s homeowning – and Conservative-voting – democracy.

The divergence is continuing. How the parties respond will be a central issue of the next parliament and beyond.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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