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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.