How age and economics explains why northern seats like Workington are turning Tory

Newly Tory Workington. Image: Getty.

This week, the internet is absolutely awash with takes that one might accurately summarise as, “Why the 2019 election result shows that I have been right all along”. Having been the sort of kid who answered the question, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you join them?” with “Hell, yes!” I figured I’d get involved.

Check out this graph showing the age breakdown of voters on Thursday, courtesy of the Tory pollster Lord Ashcroft:

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A couple of things strike me about this chart, beyond the obvious correlation between party allegiance and age. One is that propensity to vote Lib Dem is flat across the age range. Another is that people are much more likely to vote Labour than Conservative even into their 40s – which, one might imagine, should be worrying the Tories a bit. A third is that this didn’t stop the party from winning a massive majority last week, which is presumably why it doesn’t actually seem to worry them at all.

But I’m including that graph here mainly as a necessary piece of context before getting to the thing I found really interesting. Here’s another chart from Ian Warren, Boltonian and shed-based data maven for the Centre for Towns (whose co-founder, we should probably disclose at this point, is potential Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy). It shows the change in the age profile – from 1981 to 2011 – of 13 of the mostly northern seats that Labour failed to win last week:

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In each of them, the share of the population over 65 – and thus overwhelmingly likely to vote Conservative – is up, in several by over 30 points. At the same time, the share of the population aged 18 to 24 – and so overwhelmingly likely to vote Labour – has collapsed, in many by over 20 points.

Over the last few decades, of course, society has aged: people are living longer, so you’d expect the share of the population over 65 to have increased, and for those in other age brackets to have reduced as a consequence. So is this the pattern for all towns?

Well, helpfully the Centre for Towns has a data tool, which enables me to check and confirm that – no, it isn’t. Here are the population stats for two southern towns chosen fairly randomly – Tunbridge Wells on the left, and Brighton & Hove on the right.


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Getting comparable figures out of them involves some maths, but by my reckoning… In Tunbridge Wells, both the 18-24 and the 65+ segments have fallen as a share of the overall population. In Brighton & Hove, meanwhile, the 18-24 group is up, and the over 65 segment down. We can speculate on the reasons why – growing student numbers; London’s housing crisis pushing more working-aged people to commute from satellite towns in Kent – but all that matters here is that the change in age profile in those northern seats isn’t universal.

So why are some towns losing young people and gaining old ones? Lifestyle factors will be one reason: basically, living in a city is fashionable now in a way it wasn’t in 1981. (I wrote about this all the way back in 2015.)

But another, I’d guess, is economics. For reasons we’ve often discussed on CityMetric, around the shift to services and the growing importance of agglomeration, a falling share of jobs are in towns, and a growing share are in cities.

The result of this is an internal brain drain: a chunk of the population of each town leaves to go to university at 18 and finds they have no particular reason to move back. For those on the outskirts of London, or other boomtowns, some move back in their 30s to start families. But for places like Workington, they don’t.

The net result is that many of those towns have populations with fewer young people, more old ones – and who are increasingly likely to vote Tory.

This isn’t a full explanation, of course. Those figures cover the period from 1981 to 2011, so chart a long-term trend: they’re not enough to explain the change in Labour’s fates since 2017 and 2019.

Nonetheless, if you want to know why traditionally Labour seats in the north are going Tory, while affluent places like Brighton, Canterbury and Cambridge have gradually shifted from surprise Labour wins to solid Labour seats, this seems to be a very probable reason why.

Or to put it another way: I Was Right All Along.

Anyway, please subscribe to my newsletter.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.


It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).

Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.