One of the odder things that I witnessed this past political conference season: an event on the Labour fringe being hijacked by what seemed to be some sort of Herefordshire Popular Front.
The event in question was on the rise of the metro mayor, and what it meant for Britain’s cities. But almost as soon as the chair invited questions, a man from Herefordshire popped up to complain that this focus on cities would cause us to forget about areas that were not, in fact, cities.
Shortly afterwards, a woman raised her hand, to make exactly the same point (she turned out to be married to the first questioner). A third person – not, to my knowledge, from Herefordshire – complained that the rise of mayors would simply turn the regional cities into “mini-Londons”, although exactly what this meant (rich? Good public transport?) wasn’t exactly clear.
At any rate: the point that come through loud and clear was that any party which aspires to government mustn’t forget Herefordshire and other largely rural counties.
The problem is, there are two reasons why Herefordshire rarely features in Labour thinking. One is that the party barely exists there. Herefordshire council has 27 Tories, nine independents, two LibDems, three Greens and 10 representatives of the intriguingly named “It’s OUR County!” party. It doesn’t have a single Labour councillor, and its two parliamentary constituencies are both safe Tory holds. It’s not crazy that Labour isn’t giving that much thought to Herefordshire.
There’s another reason this is true: to the first approximation, nobody lives in Herefordshire. It has a population of around 190,000, which is nothing, really: under 0.3 per cent of the UK population. If it were an urban area, which it very obviously isn’t, it’d be the 40th largest in Britain, slightly above such bustling metropolises as Crawley and Swindon.
We can take that further. There are 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester. Herefordshire has fewer people than nine of them, and roughly ties with Bury. London has 32 boroughs. Herefordshire’s population is roughly on a par with that of the 29th largest, Richmond-upon-Thames.
The reason I’m banging on about this – see, you knew I’d get to a point eventually – is because it doesn’t feel to me like we treat these two units of roughly equal population as the same. Demanding attention for Herefordshire at a political conference feels silly, but it doesn’t feel ridiculous: of course we can’t go ignoring entire counties.
Now imagine someone standing up to demand attention for Richmond-upon-Thames, or the Metropolitan Borough of Bury. It doesn’t work, does it? Somehow a county has something – a landmass; an identity – that gives it weight beyond its population, a right to be heard.
Except – does it? Why do the 190,000 people who live in Herefordshire deserve more attention than the 190,000 people who live in Bury? Why should one matter more than the other?
This is a less theoretical problem than one might suppose. We hear a lot in British politics about the over-mightiness of London, which is fair enough, really: the capital does dominate national political life to an unusual and damaging extent.
But there’s another part of the UK that also, I think, gets attention out of proportion to its actual population. Scotland (pop: 5.4m) doesn’t get as much attention as London (pop: 8.8m), of course. But its internal politics gets vastly more coverage than that of any other area of the UK, even though several – Yorkshire, the West Midlands and the North West, to name but three – have more people.
So why do people from those regions get angrier about the way London warps national debate around itself than they do about Scotland doing the same? Partly it’s because London’s dominance is greater; partly because hated of the capital is a fairly universal phenomenon.
But also, I suspect, it’s something else, summed up by the response you tend to get if you point out to a Scottish nationalist that there are lot more people in London than in Scotland: the latter is a nation, the former merely a city. There’s something there – a history, an identity – that gives it a weight beyond its mere population size.
This tendency to privilege some sorts of identity over others is a natural and fairly universal impulse. Sovereign states get one seat at the UN regardless of population, and Germany and Malta are both EU members, even though the former is around 190 times the size of the latter. All 50 states get the same number of US senators, even though their populations vary by a factor of 67.
But it bothers me, nonetheless. Luxembourg and Malta are not as important as Germany and France. And when it comes to government policy, London should get more attention than Scotland: including its commuter belt, it has over twice the people, and contributes far more to the UK’s growth and prosperity. From a purely utilitarian, sum-of-human-happiness point of view, London matters more. Bugger nationhood: it’s simply a property of the maths. In the same way, it’s not that I think we can ignore Herefordshire, I just think it’s less important than, say, Milton Keynes.
I’m aware this is a difficult area, that historic identities are important, that population size isn’t everything. Nonetheless, I think population size is most things, and that we are more prone to under- rather than -over-playing its importance.
Don’t believe me? Look at the United States election of 2016, where Hillary Clinton got 3m more votes than Donald Trump. So why is the latter president right now? Because the US electoral system gives disproportionate weight to states with tiny populations.
I don’t want to overstate this: I’m just saying that paying too much attention to Herefordshire could literally bring about nuclear war with North Korea, that’s all.
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.