In David Cameron’s first party conference speech as Conservative leader, back in the sepia-tinged days of 2006, he identified a key problem the party had been facing at three successive elections:
“While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life, we were banging on about Europe”
Ironically enough, the Prime Minister has spent much of his year so far doing exactly that – with the referendum just four weeks away, domestic policy and politics is taking a back seat to the question of Britain’s future, in or out of the European Union. But domestic issues are hugely relevant to our relationship – past, present and future – with the EU, as we discussed at this week’s Trends Breakfast on Domestic Fragmentation and the Future of UK.
For example, membership of the EU brings with it high rates of net migration, which is driving population growth across the UK. As we’ve discussed before, population growth leads to numerous benefits, but its uneven nature across the UK is helping to drive markedly different outcomes wherever we look, whether in the age profile of local authorities, their rates of economic growth, the availability of jobs or any emerging areas of social need. Technology provision also varies widely across the country, and the impact of the economic downturn – the most severe in living memory – also played out differently not just from region to region, but from house to house.
Across almost any metric, consumers’ experiences and opportunities vary widely from local area to local area.
This fragmentation exists at a wider level across Europe, with population trends, economic performance and socio-economic opportunities changing from place to place, and there are echoes of it in the UK’s relationship with the EU. As Janan Ganesh has observed, in many ways, the UK has never been fully integrated into the EU, separated geographically by the channel and economically or politically by its refusal to join the single currency. But in the same way, a vote to leave would not see us ever really leave – after protracted negotiations we would still end up in some sort of agreement with the EU, or the EU nations, and it wouldn’t result in us moving the country any further west across the Atlantic.
The recent local elections are testament to this fragmentation, with different results from place to place making a mockery of rhetoric about one-nation politics. Labour, enduring a pretty poor night across the country, continued its recent strong performance in London, while the SNP consolidated their position north of the border, joined in their celebrations by the second-placed Conservatives. In Wales, Labour were denied control of the Assembly by strong performances of Plaid Cymru and UKIP, while in England even the Lib Dems enjoyed a mini-revival.
A nation which for much of the post-war 20th Century saw two parties dominate every election suddenly sees itself dealing with different concerns – and ultimately, different elected representatives – depending on whereabouts in the country you look.
This fragmentation will also change the nature of political communication, as overarching messages are less relevant to populations whose experiences are so wildly different, and in campaigns where there is more than one rival for share of vote. Politicians can target voters in the same way organisations and businesses can – appealing with specific messages to smaller and smaller groups.
This fragmentation raises a final, and very significant question – is there any such thing as a national mood anymore? It was suggested at our Breakfast event that the only example in the UK is of the nation’s collective joy at the performance of Leicester City in the Premier League – although even there we can find pockets of discontentment in Derby, Nottingham, and certain places along the Seven Sisters Road.