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Northerners: not as left-wing as we thought

People in the North East may not be as economically left-wing and in favour of redistribution as we thought. In fact, proportionately fewer people in the north hold those views than in London.

People in the north, including by clear implication in the North East, are even further behind in their support for welfare and further behind still in their support for liberal values.

These mostly surprising findings have emerged from the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey published this week by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

If true, they could have significant implications for the region’s electoral politics and possibly for the devolution and levelling up agendas.

The Brexit referendum and the subsequent levelling up agenda, says the BSA survey, have highlighted the significant economic and demographic differences between England’s regions.

It sets out to analyse the extent to which these difference contribute to regional differences in people’s underlying social and political values and what, if any, the implications of regional differences in values might be for England’s two main political parties

NO NORTH-SOUTH VALUES GAP

The BSA found differences in view on economic issues small enough to enable it to say there is no north-south gap, in contrast with earlier data which found people in the north to be more left-wing and more pro-welfare.

In the north, the BSA survey found 61% of people can be classified as left-wing – i.e. tending to believe that economic resources are unequally distributed and favouring their redistribution to the less well-off – compared with 56% in the south. In London the percentage of left-wingers appears marginally higher than in the north (though the accompanying graph is not absolutely clear on how much higher).

Whatever the precise London figure, the BSA found differences in view on economic issues small enough to enable it to comment that ‘people in the north and south share similar economic values’ and to refer to ‘the lack of a north-south gap’ in such values.

WELFARE and LIBERAL VALUES

On welfare, the survey found that 47% of people in London can be classified as pro-welfare –  believing  that the state should provide a safety net for those in need – compared with 30%-37% in other English regions. This percentage supporting a safety net seems surprisingly, even shockingly low, even in London.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, 34% of Londoners can be classified as liberal – i.e. supporting the right to individual freedom over conformity to common rules and practices – compared with 20% in other parts of the south and 17% in the north. In urban areas outside London 19% are liberal

Forty-seven per cent of those aged 18-34 in London are liberal but only 30% in the rest of the country.

People who are left-wing identify with Labour over the Conservatives by 43% to 20% and people who are liberal identify with Labour over the Tories even more strikingly, by 52% to 8%. In London, where people are more likely to be liberal, 40% are Labour Party identifiers compared with only 33% in England as a whole.

In spite of these findings about people’s values, 37% of those in the north still identify with the Labour Party compared with only 26% in the south. But this may be a historic legacy, likely reflecting past differences in values, according to the BSA.

‘The present lack of a north-south gap in economic values’ it says, ‘may provide an opportunity for the Conservatives to make headway in previous Labour strongholds.’.

COMMENT

According to the BSA: ‘Labour [is] likely to continue to dominate London but may be vulnerable in the north’. However, though the survey findings are striking, it is far from clear what their implications are for the parties. It is probably wise not to read too much into a single survey.

Following Brexit and the Labour Party’s temporary take-over by Corbynism, political attitudes may still be in a state of flux.

We know that the Labour Party saw many of its ‘red wall’ seats fall to the Tories in the 2019 general election including seven in the North East followed by another in a by-election not long afterwards.

Since then, the experience of Boris Johnson’s premiership and now the early economic turmoil of the Liz Truss government may have driven northern voting intentions back towards their traditional left-wing home. Recent opinion polls certainly suggest a big national lead for Labour. But the next general election is not expected until 2024.

The BSA survey suggests that social attitudes, which may be more deeply ingrained and harder to shift than voting intentions, continue to provide potentially fertile ground for the Conservatives in the north.

If the implications of the survey for politics generally are uncertain, those for the levelling-up agenda are still more so. It seems ironic that Londoners, who almost every year are net contributors to the public purse, are more pro-welfare than northerners who suppose themselves to be the intended recipients of the benefits of levelling up, such as they are.