Election results, like the experience of life, have been diverging across the UK. The remain campaign cannot afford to ignore this diversity, but must instead engage with all those English towns that feel left behind.
Referendums are elections with only one constituency. Observers of British politics are so conditioned to think in terms of suburban marginals, and rock-solid safe seats, that it takes a mental leap to grasp that every vote to leave or remain in the EU will have precisely the same consequences, irrespective of whether it is cast in the leafy streets of Hampstead, the rolling hills of Devon or amid the northern inner-city terraces of Longsight.
Even single-constituency elections, however, are played out across a country’s constituent parts – and from tiny communities to vast conurbations, diverse forces are in play. This diversity is very much more marked than back in 1975, when the UK last staged a plebiscite on what was then the Common Market. That vote took place within an unambiguously nationwide political culture – the overall 67% share for yes edged up into the 70s in more prosperous, rural counties, and slipped down a few points in pockets of the industrial north. But only in the Celtic fringe was there an appreciably stronger anti-European showing, and only in the islands off north and west Scotland was the scepticism sufficiently strong to result in an outright no.
To say that the four decades since have played out differently across the kingdom is to put it mildly. The whirr of the northern mills has fallen silent, and every coal community has morphed, for the most part unhappily, into a former mining town. London meanwhile, which in the 1970s was shedding its population out to the new towns, now sucks people and ambition from out of the provinces, having grown into the hyper-diverse centre of the financial universe. Scotland, which to most of Whitehall was once a mere region, has evolved from the land that proved too nervous to seize the chance of devolution in 1979, and is today increasingly autonomous with a distinct party system, in which outright separatists are all-conquering. Devolution has created a more distinct Welsh politics, too, and allowed Northern Ireland’s factions, not long ago defined only by tribalism and violence, to engage in humdrum haggling over water rates and grammar schools. Consumer habits and tastes, especially in the English cities, have been remade by the cuisine and the brands that arrived with globalisation, but as one moves away from London, there is abject confusion about what exactly it is that Britain is supposed to sell to the world. Economic fortunes have evolved with wild variation, and the regional divide in house prices has reached a point where a middle-aged move from the regions into the capital will often be impossible even for prosperous professionals.
Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that the old swingometer has ceased to function. In last month’s local elections the mood was progressive in London and the university towns, but anxious and sometimes reactionary elsewhere; at Holyrood, Scotland went in its own way, just as it had done in 2015. In this fractured context, referendum enthusiasts’ claims – that the vote will allow “the people” to speak with “one voice” and “settle” the question at issue – could prove naive. It is more probable that a single, and perhaps slim, majority either way will conceal more than it reveals. Indeed, the heightening of nerves on the remain side over the last fortnight probably has less to do with the slight decline in its standing in the nationwide polls, than with the bad local news that many Labour MPs are picking up from canvass returns, now that their activists are focusing on the referendum rather than the town hall. Ukip hotspots along the east coast were already assumed to be leaning to leave, but – as Guardian reports from Newport and Sunderland have underlined – many industrial towns could also be tempted to give a thumbs down to an internationalised economic order which, they feel, and not without reason, has not served them well.
Of course there are answers, especially workers’ rights, to those who suggest that the best thing for a depressed local economy is to cut Britain adrift. But these arguments have to be aired, and then honed for these communities. Scotland already has its own conversation, and newly confident in its own identity is perhaps less fearful of being subsumed by Brussels. London, a new poll found this week, looks for remain, too. Two former prime ministers went to Northern Ireland on Thursday to stress that there is a special peace process argument for staying in. But in the fortnight that remains, the remainers of Westminster, the very pocket of London that one analysis suggests is the most pro-EU borough in the country, must focus above all else on reaching out to all those parts of England that feel left behind.