“It’s grim down South” is the latest article in Rakib Ehsan’s online column for The Critic, “Rakib’s Britain”. The previous article, on America’s toxic racial politics, can be read here.
As the Conservative government’s “levelling-up” agenda stumbles on, the UK remains one of the most inter-regionally imbalanced economies in the industrialised world. It is a crisis point for the government’s flagship policy, with recent YouGov polling showing that British voters are more likely to trust Labour than the Conservatives over tackling regional inequality in modern-day Britain.
There has been much focus on post-industrial districts in Northern England and disconnected smaller towns across the provincial Midlands. However, left-behind communities in rural southern England have not been given the attention they deserve under the levelling-up agenda. While the Conservatives have focused on so-called “Red Wall” constituencies in England’s former Labour heartlands, they have neglected many traditional Tory-voting communities — especially in the predominantly rural South West region — which are anything but southern English hubs of thriving affluence.
Many Conservative voters may have stayed at home out of disillusionment
Perhaps it is no surprise that the Tories suffered such a devastating defeat in the recent Tiverton & Honiton by-election. The Conservatives, who had won the Brexit-voting seat on every occasion since it was created ahead of the 1997 UK General Election, saw its 24,539-vote majority evaporate in spectacular fashion — with newly-elected Liberal Democrat MP Richard Foode emerging victorious with a majority of over 6,000 votes. While the Wakefield by-election defeat in West Yorkshire demonstrated the clear difficulties the Tories have in keeping hold of recently-gained seats in the so-called “Red Wall”, the loss in Tiverton & Honiton — traditional, Tory-voting, pro-Brexit rural communities where the classic triad of faith, family and flag runs deep — marks an electoral low under Boris Johnson’s prime ministership.
There are a number of political factors likely to be at play in both by-election defeats — including the Downing Street “Partygate” scandal as well as the circumstances under which they were held (Neil Parish’s resignation over being caught watching pornography in the House of Commons and Imran Ahmad-Khan’s conviction over sexually assaulting a fifteen-year-old boy). There has also been talk of possible anti-Tory “progressive tactical voting” (with Labour winning Wakefield and losing its deposit in Tiverton & Honiton, with the pattern being reversed for the Liberal Democrats).
What is entirely plausible, especially in the case of Tiverton & Honiton, is that many traditional Conservative voters simply stayed at home out of sheer disillusionment and disaffection. The government has to recognise that one key element of the “levelling up” agenda should be moving away from binary forms of “North/South” thinking when it comes to understanding England’s divides along the lines of educational opportunity and socio-economic progress. Southern England is anything but a monolithic oasis of broad-based prosperity — there are enough materially-deprived communities with minimal civic assets in the South West region that prove it is a myth.
The overlooking of poverty in the region is potentially driven by methodological issues. Academics at the University of Bristol have identified that when developing deprivation-related indices for the South West region, a disproportionate section of the region’s population is based in rural and semi-rural areas (when compared with the UK as a whole). Indeed, for some time, scholars have warned that deprivation-related indices that are “nationally representative” tend to underestimate the extent of “rural poverty” and overestimate the degree of “urban poverty” (particularly when no allowance is made for the additional costs of living that come with being located in geographically-disconnected agricultural communities).
The reality of the matter is the South West region is all too often romanticised. While it features some of the most picturesque and idyllic landscapes England has to offer, it contains very real forms of poverty and deprivation which continue to be underestimated and largely overlooked by much of the British political establishment. There is no doubt that the South West of England is facing its fair share of challenges in the “post-pandemic world”. Recent data analysis carried out by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) found that the four local authorities in England with the highest rates of “persistent absence” among schoolchildren were all in the South West of England: Devon, Cornwall, Plymouth and Torbay (which includes seaside towns such as Torquay, Paignton and Brixham). These are the “ghost children” of Britain’s Covid-19 experience in England’s forgotten region.
The South West region barely features in ‘left-behind’ narratives
Considering the power of the internet and how broadband connectivity can help to lift communities into modern-day social development, there are parts of the South West of England that lag behind much of the country when it comes to gigabit availability, average download speeds and general connection speeds. Indeed, this technological inequality should be treated more seriously as a social-justice issue. In January 2022, the national average (by constituency) for premises capable of receiving speeds of one gigabit per second was 64 per cent — with this shooting down to 17.3 per cent for the south-west English seat of Torridge and West Devon. Nationwide, the mean average download speed being received by fixed broadband lines (megabits per second — Mbps) in May 2021 was 86.5 — dropping to 43.9 in Tiverton & Honiton. The national average for lines receiving speeds below 10 Mbps in May 2021 was seven per cent — rising to 15.6 per cent in the constituency of Central Devon. When one takes stock of these figures regarding internet connectivity, it is remarkable that the South West region barely features in “left-behind” narratives.
Much like how the modern-day Labour Party took voters for granted in its post-industrial and provincial heartlands in Northern England and the Midlands, the Conservatives are at risk of losing traditional Tory voters in Leave-voting rural communities across South West England — what YouGov’s Dr Patrick English has called the “Conservative Celtic Fringe”. If the current government is genuinely serious about tackling regional inequality and levelling-up our country, it will devote more energy and resources into creating greater opportunities in South West England’s left-behind communities.
It is time to do away with the over-glamourisation of “countryside life” in southern England. Rural poverty and social isolation in the South West region must be better prioritised by our political classes.
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