1. Governance
July 18, 2018

Fearful for the future, fed up with the government, and divided over Brexit – here’s what urban Britain thinks

By Andrew Carter

The UK’s cities were one of the key political battlegrounds of last year’s General Election. Labour may have consolidated its vote in big metropolitan areas in England and Wales – but the Tories made surprising inroads in places such as Mansfield, Middlesbrough and Walsall.

It’s clear, then, that cities will continue to be an important political battleground in the coming years – and that for either of the main political parties to make a breakthrough, they’ll need to win over urban voters.

But what do people in UK cities think about the key political issues of the day? And how do they feel about the political and economic direction that the UK is heading in?

To get an insight into these questions, Centre for Cities recently commissioned polling company ComRes to survey urban voters – that is, those who live in Britain’s 62 largest urban areas – on some of the most pressing issues the UK faces, from Brexit, immigration and house prices, to broader questions about where political power should reside.

The findings suggest that Britain’s urban residents are far from content about the political path the UK is on, and the current status quo of Westminster politics.

Urban Britons are gloomy about the UK’s future prospects, and their own

On the positive side, 42 per cent of people in cities said that the UK would be more economically prosperous in 2030 than it is now, compared to 30 per cent who disagreed.

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However, just over a third (36 per cent) said they believe that future generations will be more financially prosperous than they are now. An even smaller number – just 31 per cent – agreed that that the UK is going in the right direction politically, compared to 51 per cent who disagreed. 

People in cities are less progressive on immigration than you might think

Concerns about immigration helped drive the vote for Brexit, yet it’s often assumed that this is primarily a concern in towns and rural areas – and that the UK’s city dwellers are more liberal on this issue.

But the polling suggests that people in cities are less open and tolerant of immigration than you might think. The majority of people in cities say that immigration has made a positive contribution to the UK economy over the last 30 years (59 per cent), and that immigrants contribute towards greater cultural diversity (62 per cent).

However, even more people in cities say that current levels of immigration have left public services overstretched (68 per cent), and that the UK is “now full” as a result of current immigration levels (64 per cent)

Moreover, just over a quarter of city dwellers say think that the UK should welcome more immigrants (27 per cent)

The ‘Big Society’ lives on in UK cities

David Cameron’s plans for the ‘Big Society’ may be a distant memory, but the polling suggests that some of the thinking behind this initiative lives on in UK cities. In particular, it indicates that people in cities want national government to take a back seat – and let communities and individuals take the lead on local services.

When we asked urban voters about who should take decisions about public services in their areas, nearly two thirds said that local government (61 per cent), community groups (62 per cent) and individuals (63 per cent) should have a stake. But only 30 per cent said national government should be involved in decision-making to some extent.

Out of these four groups, 43 per cent of people in cities said local government should take the lead in these decisions – but nearly a quarter (24 per cent) said individual residents should be most responsible, and 17 per cent said community groups. Just 15 per cent said that national government should have the most responsibility for these issues.

More people in cities said that they can vote for someone who understands and represents them in local elections (50 per cent) than in national ballots (43 per cent).

 Support for a second referendum on the UK’s Brexit deal is strong in cities

Given that people in cities largely voted to remain in the EU, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is considerable appetite among urban voters for a second referendum on the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal.

Nearly half of urban Britons (48 per cent) say they support the idea of a second referendum, compared to 35 per cent who oppose it.

Most analysis of the vote for Brexit focused on the sense of disillusionment and alienation felt in Britain’s ‘left-behind places’ – the towns and rural areas where the vote to leave the EU was strongest.

But two years on from the referendum, this polling suggests that people in cities are similarly pessimistic about the political path the UK is on, and their position within it. These are lessons which the main political parties must pay heed to if they are to make the crucial breakthrough in UK cities needed to sweep to power in the next general election.

 Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities.

Methodology: ComRes interviewed 2,046 adults in Great Britain aged 18+ online between 18-20th May 2018. Respondents were categorised into those living inside and outside Primary Urban Areas (PUAs). Data from PUA and non-PUA residents were each weighted separately to be representative of all adults aged 18+ in those areas by age, gender, region and social grade. The overall sample was then weighted to be representative of the split between PUA and non-PUA residents overall. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Tables can be found online here.

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