In 2019 some 80 per cent of the UK live not at the heart of big cities, but in the suburbs bordering our metropolises. The suburbs are of great psephological significance to the electoral pulse – including the Brexit vote. Yet they have tended to be comparatively overlooked in academic analyses. across disciplines.
My recent collection on the politics of the suburbs attempts to redress this balance. I write from the perspective of a sitting MP in the constituency of Ealing Central and Acton. This means I can draw on issues uncovered from the doorstep, advice surgery sessions, and correspondence with constituents. The other contributors straddle disciplinary boundaries. Between them, they go further than simply examining electoral results as they grapple with exactly what suburbs are, as well as the planning processes that lay behind their construction.
1. What constitutes suburbia is multiple and constantly changing
Ealing has long prided itself with the epithet ‘queen of the suburbs’, a term that has been traced back to the first report of the borough surveyor in 1902 with the area marketing itself as ‘best of all worlds … excellent railway facilities … a country town near London … houses of all sizes, to suit all pockets’.
But now, housing is the number one concern in Ealing Central and Acton. The issues brought before me at surgery straddle both middle class concerns about planning permission to expand existing homes from their original footprint, as well as overcrowding, repairs and homelessness. 44 per cent of former council properties are now privately rented; many rented back to Ealing council as temporary accommodation costing council taxpayers millions and inflating the benefits bill.
Precisely where we can locate and plot suburbia constantly changes. Notwithstanding the fact that the green belt girdles London, its sprawl has continued apace through the years. And private developers and, to a lesser extent, housing associations, have notably become the most prolific builders rather than councils per se.
2. Suburbs are now looking the worse for wear
Traditionally, a move to the suburb has been one that connoted a step upwards and onwards in status. Yet there is a sense that the suburbs of today are somewhat frayed at the edges.
Specifically suburban concerns include commuting costs and quality of life issues, including public services, childcare and housing. But increasingly, poverty is alive and well in the sort of locales Ed Miliband identified as the ‘squeezed middle’ and Theresa May the ‘just about managing’. Instead of the desirable locations they once were, suburban town centres are now looking decidedly tatty.
The London borough of Ealing now has just 36 pence for every £1 it had in 2010. With the rolling out of universal credit in 2018, benefits became much more of an issue than they had ever previously been. In a recent parliamentary question I highlighted how Ealing’s debt charities have told me that the majority of current clients were in work, but in debt to basic providers such as council housing departments and energy companies.
Planning processes and the structure of the built environment mean that the physical suburban landscape is changing, in addition to the social structure and its inhabitants. A Financial Times report from 2018 notes a ‘Hackney diaspora’ of young professional families who were moving to Chingford in outer north east London from the borough on finding themselves priced out of Walthamstow.
3. The suburbs and the Brexit vote: the new political faultline for regional variation
The 2016 referendum held by David Cameron on the UK’s EU membership has increasingly underscored and indeed polarised British politics. In my own seat, the result almost suggested that the old Labour vs Conservative duopoly in the seat had broken down and turned into a new binary of remain vs leave.
Whilst one of the traditional triggers identified for Brexit is ‘white flight’, presupposing the shift of voters away from the mixed population of the city to a more homogeneous suburban setting. Yet a key strength of the suburban landscape is its demographic diversity, including 13,000 EU nationals across Ealing Central and Acton, who are increasingly vocal.
Labour’s essentially triangulated position in its 2017 manifesto, which respected the referendum result, but argued for a customs union (effectively a soft Brexit), reflected the dilemma it faces. This is summed up by Labour’s two most marginal seats: Kensington (snatched from the Tories in 2017 by a majority of 20 with a remain vote of 69 per cent) and Dudley North (won by 22 votes where leave won by 71 per cent).
Remain won in a majority of big cities like Liverpool and Manchester, plus London and its suburbs. Leave won over a coalition of the electorate spanning both Surrey and Sunderland. Arguments for remain that centred on certain economic hardship and loss to follow did not tap into the greater feelings behind voting decisions, including loss of identity and the desire to ‘take back control’.
4. Voting patterns reflect the dynamism of the modern suburb
Suburbs are no longer politically predictable. The social and physical environment of the suburb may shape attitudes to some extent, but incomers have brought their politics with them. The number of seats changing hands in general elections from 2005–2017 illustrate how voter volatility is alive in the modern suburb.
Stuart Wilks‐Heeg looks in great detail at the shifting fortunes of political parties in greater Liverpool commuterland. A seat such as Sefton Central displays decidedly middle class traits, but has swung evermore towards Labour since 1992. Arterial transport links as key to defining the limits of Merseyside suburbia.
Additionally, suburbs might be associated with social conformity and political stability and conservatism with a small C, but notions of a ‘progressive alliance’ are gaining traction. The result of the Richmond Park by‐election of December 2016 saw Labour poll fewer votes than the number of paid‐up members they had in the constituency, with voters combining forces with the Lib Dems to overthrow Conservative Zac Goldsmith.
In 2017, the Ealing Green party withdrew their candidate in order to ensure my re‐election as sitting Labour MP in return for my assurance of campaigning against Brexit, Heathrow expansion and climate change, and in favour of electoral reform. This shows suburban voters ready to be astute in forming coalitions based on ideas.
We live in times where political debate and the nature of discourse has become polarised along dividing lines that are different to previous party political cleavages. The relationship between the suburbs and the Brexit vote speak to the obvious current litmus test. The only certainty in today’s politics is uncertainty.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Political Quarterly journal.