“These streets were once full of spirit, and hope. A proud community, where an honest day’s work could earn you a decent day’s pay. Years of austerity have ripped the heart out of this place. But that’s just part of the story. This has been decades in the making. We lost the factories, we lost the jobs, we lost confidence in our community. We lost control.”
So runs the introduction to a short film titled Our Town, shot in places such as Mansfield and Hastings (and, somewhat confusingly, the cities of Liverpool and Glasgow) and released three weeks ago by the Labour party. In terms of political strategy, it is a clear attempt to push Labour’s message into places where it has been underperforming, and address its supposed “towns problem” (more of which in a moment). Viewed from another perspective, its three and a half minutes are a brisk and very powerful tour through the three-decade failure of what some people call neoliberalism. More than anything, it vividly evokes one of modern Britain’s starkest cultural divides: the one that separates our bigger, most successful cities from hundreds of comparatively disadvantaged towns, and which exploded so spectacularly in the vote on whether or not Britain should leave the EU.
This much we know: across the world, cities are growing at speed, powered by the tendency of modern economies to build themselves around clusters of educated people, and the so-called agglomeration effects whereby cutting-edge businesses are attracted to places where networking and collaboration happens as a matter of course. This leaves towns in a very uncertain position, and the resulting frustrations and resentments have obvious political manifestations: Trump v Clinton, leave v remain, and the sense that mainland Europe is now cleaved by a battle between metropolitan liberals and populists who draw their support from well beyond the city walls.
Since 2010, as we have travelled around the country making films for the Guardian’s Anywhere but Westminster series, towns and their sense of distance from power and influence have been a key subject we have returned to time and again. Indeed, we have often understood the watershed political stories of the past few years in terms of particular places. For us, the rise of Ukip was synonymous with Clacton in Essex. We watched the story of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 unfold from the vantage point of Falkirk, population 35,000. Two years later, we came to associate the phenomenon of working-class support for Brexit with the post-industrial Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil. Moreover, one of the other things highlighted by the Labour film has become more and more clear: such places are now at the centre of British political conversation.
We both grew up in towns, and regularly talk about an unshakeable affinity with their rituals and everyday rhythms: market days, the massed Saturday rush to the supermarket, the daily sense of things beginning to slowly wind down at 4pm every day. And we’ve recently spent sufficiently long spells hanging around in ring-road pubs and high-street coffee outlets to come up with a series of conclusions about towns, where they are headed and what it all means for the future of the country. As follows:
Towns now hold the key to the UK’s political future
On the day – and night – of the 2017 general election, we were in the West Midlands constituency of Walsall North, held by Labour since 1979 but newly under threat from the Conservatives. Polling suggested the Tories were in with a serious chance of winning there and elsewhere by attracting the votes of former Labour supporters who had switched to Ukip, and so it proved: as the Ukip vote crashed, the Tories went from a vote share of 33% to an astonishing 49%.
The night’s big story, however, was Labour’s national surge. Sent into a spin by the shock national exit poll, we drove 11 miles down the M6 to central Birmingham, where we found a completely different political reality. Most of the people we met were under 30, and they had voted Labour in their droves. Their opinions about immigration, Brexit and the future of the country were often the polar opposite of what we had heard in Walsall. It was an amazing thing to see, but in the flurry of coverage of Labour’s achievements, one thing was rather forgotten: the switch from Labour to the Tories in Walsall North had been replicated in such constituencies as the former mining town of Mansfield, Stoke-on-Trent South, North East Derbyshire, and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland – and, indeed, the 120-odd seats where there had been a swing from Labour to the Tories.
This is not all that new
Before Corbynmania, there was Milifandom. On a platform of higher taxes for big earners, tackling the energy giants, and talking in general about the shortcomings of 21st-century capitalism, Ed Miliband had apparently arrived at a strong position in the polls. Much of left-wing Britain and the liberal chatterati, informed largely by their social media bubbles and errors in polling, thought in 2015 that he would be prime minister. But when we pitched up in the highly marginal Midlands constituency of Nuneaton, in among a very familiar townscape that included a still-busy street market and apparently thriving retail parks, we found no evidence of what such excitement was ostensibly all about. Sure enough, the Tories retained Nuneaton with an increased majority – and in 2017, even though Labour’s support went up, the Conservatives also put on votes, and Nuneaton stayed blue.
There is something about towns – in England in particular – that often makes them difficult territory for the modern left
This is one example among many of a story that now sits at the heart of Britain’s political future – and as Nuneaton proves, it goes beyond ideas of “left behind” communities and places that have become byword for hardship. Whatever their economic position, there is something about towns – in England in particular – that often makes them difficult territory for the modern left, which sometimes looks in danger of piling on support in urban areas where left-liberal values are a given while it retreats from less populous places whose collective politics represent much more of a challenge. This is the crux of what has come to be known as Labour’s “towns problem”. Of the 64 seats the party now needs to win a parliamentary majority of one, 31 are essentially town constituencies; among its top 100 targets, the figure is 49.
In even the most disadvantaged towns, there is stuff happening
Labour’s film is a powerful evocation of a long history of political and economic failure. But in its unendingly bleak picture – crystallised in the claim that “years of austerity have ripped the heart out of this place” – it is arguably guilty of one of the things that sits at the heart of too many portraits of towns: the idea that the most disadvantaged places are not only devoid of hope, but of people and organisations making a real difference to everyday life.
Neither is true, as has been proved by pretty much every town we have spent time in over the last decade – and, indeed, our own mistakes. These are easy to make, because the most visually striking aspects of some places – the boarded-up shops, empty streets and uncollected rubbish – are what you tend to see first, and stories are easily told in terms of extremes. But places are always much more complicated than they might first appear – and besides, people are hardly going to react well to being told by outsiders that where they are living is hopeless.
Stories are easily told in terms of extremes. But places are always much more complicated than they might first appear
On one particularly memorable occasion, we made a video in Stoke-on-Trent – the city made up of the six towns of Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Longton, Fenton and Tunstall – that overemphasised its bleaker aspects and attracted the anger and frustration of a lot of local people. So we went back there, and found enough of what academics call “social capital” to fill an eight-part series of videos: a thriving milieu of young entrepreneurs and artists and a DIY spirit among community groups working to improve their areas without help from outside. The Portland Inn project, for example, has used the Community Asset Transfer process to take over a closed-down pub at the heart of an estate and reopen it as a community centre. Then there is the community group Our Burslem, which revived festivals and is campaigning to bring a street market back to what locals call “the Mother Town” – in the face of the fact that Burslem is usually portrayed in the media as a ghost town.
What this highlights is not just about the media and its blind spots. It also shines light on the political left’s ingrained habit of thinking that lasting change is best brought to places via the distant central state. In an age when people are networked together and towns and cities teem with grassroots initiatives, that model will no longer work.
The image of towns with boarded-up shops is a cliché, but true
Eight long years ago, just as Ed Miliband became Labour leader, we spent time in Altrincham, an outwardly affluent market town on the southern edge of Greater Manchester. It had been laid low by the opening of the massive Trafford Centre retail destination and a huge new Tesco, and local people talked in emotional terms about the awful decline of the town centre, not just the number of empty shops, but the loss of something even more precious. “There is something missing in Altrincham,” one woman told us. “It’s a miserable place to come to. Most people I know are reasonably well off, but there isn’t the community we had 20 or 30 years ago.”
Everywhere we go, people talk about the fate of their town centres with amazing passion, and frustration
The town has since been revived partly via an array of independent food shops and “artisan” businesses, a transformation that has been accompanied by remarkable political changes: it was once a rock-solid Tory heartland, but two of its borough councillors are now from the Green party. The moral of the story is pretty clear: once a town’s high street falls into decay, resentments and frustrations are sown that can eventually have serious political consequences.
Everywhere we go, people talk about the fate of their town centres with amazing passion, and frustration. Obviously, the Altrincham model of regeneration will not suit everywhere, to say the least. Labour now has a five-point plan for high streets that takes in an end to ATM charges, free wifi, a new register of empty properties, free bus travel for under-25s and reform of business rates. It sounds promising, though perhaps evades something that is glaringly obvious: conventional chain-store retailing is dying fast and high streets need to find new uses. Until this sinks in, the mood of resentment and political disconnection that characterises many of our towns will fester on.
Even after eight years of cuts, the impact of austerity on towns is overlooked
With good reason, the political debate about austerity tends to focus on cuts to such crucial services as adult and children’s social care, education, libraries and public transport. But there is also an overlooked ambient austerity manifested in streets festooned with rubbish and the decline and decay of public space – and it has a huge effect on how people feel about where they live and what politics has to offer them.
In towns, austerity fuses with all those boarded-up shops to confirm people’s sense that they are still being ignored.
Last year we made one of our general election films in Lancashire. We followed a Labour council candidate called Lisa Bloor around her hometown of Haslingden, a former mill town with a population of 18,000. She has direct experience of cuts because of her father, who has Parkinson’s disease – but one of her most affecting illustrations of what austerity had done to where she lives came when she took us to a local park whose most obvious features were flaking paint, rusty swings and an inescapable sense of neglect. “These might seem like little things that don’t matter to a lot of people, nationally – but to communities like this, this park is everything,” she said.
After eight years of cuts, many people we meet have fatalistically talked about austerity as being like the weather, but others have proved that the degradation of the public realm has already fed into the vote for Brexit and support for Corbyn’s new Labour party. In towns, austerity fuses with all those boarded-up shops to confirm people’s sense that they are still being ignored. This feels like an issue that is slowly turning critical, which is what lies behind the prime minister’s recent promise that austerity is over, and why she will be in hot water if – as seems likely – it actually carries on.
Towns do not speak with one voice: there is a big generation gap
In 2013 Margaret Thatcher died, and Anywhere but Westminster embarked on an Iron Lady-themed road trip. We started in one of the biggest towns in post-industrial south Wales: Merthyr Tydfil. Outside a huge Tesco Extra, two men in their 50s told us they still talked about the 1980s miners’ strike every day. On the high street, however, we stopped a 19-year-old woman about to start college and asked her if she knew what a trade union was. “No,” she replied. “What’s that?”
Young people who are not happy in towns tend to leave. It’s the older generations who stay, and feel changes more deeply
This is one example of the radically different views of politics that sometimes feel like they cut towns in clean in half. Another is centred on some of the things that sit at the heart of the debate about Brexit, and the fact that even in supposedly hardcore leave-supporting towns, there are fascinating divisions in how people think about the tangle of issues that came to a head around the 2016 referendum.
Sleaford in Lincolnshire is part of a local government area where 62% of voters backed leaving the EU. But when we went there in 2016, the views of most locals under 30 sat somewhere else entirely. Immigration, they said, was not a problem. The idea of patriotism left them cold. The older people we spoke to, by contrast, lamented a breakdown of tradition and community solidarity. This, we were told, was embodied by a town centre shopping precinct that had fallen into deep decline, the low turnout for town’s Remembrance Sunday parade and a rising sense of loneliness and isolation made worse by cuts to bus services.
Obviously, young people who are not happy in towns tend to leave. It is the older generations who stick around, and who feel the changes to town life more deeply. Despite the fashionable idea that Britain’s current malaise will be miraculously ended once they begin to die off, they are going to be around for some time to come.
“Left behind” towns are not living in the past at all
Rugeley is a one-time mining centre in Staffordshire that sits in the shadow of a disused power station. It is now the home of a jaw-droppingly huge Amazon fulfilment centre – so big that in a car travelling at 30 mph, it takes almost a minute to get from one end to the other.
Just over a month ago, we went there to watch the GMB union trying to increase the takeup of union membership. The workers came in on foot, in shared cars, and in large buses from nearby towns such as Walsall and Wolverhampton. Most of them ignored the campaigners trying to hand them leaflets, and the atmosphere at the gates had an uneasy, brittle aspect. The distribution centre sits next to a Premier Inn and a branch of McDonald’s: thanks also to the endless roar of huge Amazon lorries, it is one of the most quintessentially modern places we have ever visited.
People in places like Rugeley are often called “the left behind”. For sure, the industries that once dominated where they live have all gone. But many of these towns have been thrust to the cutting edge of a new economy of distribution centres, retail and hospitality, and logistics hubs, run using state-of-the-art technology. In that sense such towns point to where we are all going next, not least in terms of an automated future that most politicians have barely started to think about.
Towns need to be run completely differently
The Somerset town of Frome is 14 miles from Bath and has a population of around 25,000, split between relatively recent incomers attracted to its newly fashionable reputation and people whose backgrounds reach back into the town’s industrial past and its recent experience of neglect and hardship.
The idea has two key elements. First, it aims at running as many local amenities and services as possible from the absolute grassroots. Second, and equally important, it is about opening up decision-making to the maximum level of local participation. As the idea’s inventor, Frome councillor Peter Macfadyen, puts it: “There are other town councils where the clerk walks in first, and the members stand, the mayor comes in behind, and they then say a prayer. The public have to write in beforehand, saying they want to speak. And it’s all just lost in some sort of Victorian past. It’s just insane.”
The idea of flatpack democracy, or something very like it, has been adopted in towns and villages in Bedfordshire, Devon and Cheshire. In the small northern city of Preston, an energetic Labour council is blazing a trail for something comparable but even more ambitious: the so-called Preston model of local government, whereby as much council spending as possible is aimed at boosting the local economy. Since the Brexit referendum, we have regularly wondered whether these ideas could be tried in the kind of towns whose experiences of deindustrialisation, political neglect and latter-day austerity have all highlighted the extent to which one their biggest issues is power, and the lack of it.
Wherever we go, with good reason, most people we meet have no sense of which bit of government is responsible for this or that aspect of their lives – only that the forces making the decisions are remote, seemingly unaccountable and rarely interested in where they live. Many urban areas have been recently boosted by the creation of “city regions” governed by “metro mayors”; in Scotland and Wales, devolution has brought power closer to people’s lives. In most English towns, by contrast, systems of power and accountability are pretty much as they were 40 years ago.
What this does to people’s connection with politics is clear. To quote a report by the recently founded thinktank the Centre for Towns, “on average, people living in cities are much less likely to believe that politicians don’t care about their area. Those living in towns are, in contrast, more likely to think politicians don’t care about their area – and won’t in the future.”
There lies the biggest issue of all. The future of our towns will only partly be decided by the high-octane rituals of Westminster debate, and general elections. What really matters is whether they might finally run a much greater share of their own affairs – and, to coin a memorable slogan, take back control.