A month from now, voters in England will give the first significant electoral verdict on the political parties since the June 2017 general election. With no elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this year, only English voters will get the chance to bring in this early verdict on Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. But no one should pretend that England will speak with one voice.
Quite the reverse. These elections appear more likely than at any time in the recent past to emphasise England’s own large and sometimes deepening geographical political differences. These range from the difference between opinion and politics in London and those in the rest of England, to contrasts between and within the many differing communities outside the M25 with a vote next month, from Carlisle in the north to Plymouth in the south, which should never be lumped together.
More than ever, the answer to the Daily Mail’s provocative front page question of two years ago, “Who will speak for England?”, is that it depends which England you mean. London-based media – and not just the Mail – can sometimes blur these issues. Political parties are equally prone to do this. London is the capital city, but it is not synonymous with England, let alone Britain. Much attention over the next four weeks will rightly focus on the contests in the 32 London boroughs, where all the seats are up for grabs. Labour has high hopes. But it is certainly not the whole story.
The majority of the more than 4,000 seats being contested in May actually lie outside London. They lie in metropolitan and shire districts and in unitary councils. These places differ in multiple ways from one another and from London. Just as there is no single England, so there is no single north or south of England. Inner and outer London are different too. Nevertheless the non-London areas share this much: they too often tend to get the short straw.
The differences between the capital and the country are striking. London was already voting differently from the rest of England before the Brexit referendum in 2016. But that vote showed up the modern divide particularly acutely. As many as 60% of London voters supported staying in the EU, whereas outside London only 45% of the rest of England did the same.
This voting reflects big demographic contrasts. London has more younger people, more university graduates and more minority ethnic voters than any other part of the UK. All are pro-EU groups. That made Londoners more likely to be remainers. Brexit may then have added further impetus in 2017 to a swing away from the Conservatives in London that has been developing over the last two decades but which is not reflected in much of the rest of England.
That is why 3 May matters. The Conservatives, in the words of a minister, are trying to lower expectations “to the floor” so that even to hold on to boroughs like Barnet or Westminster could be spun as surprisingly good outcomes. Labour, by contrast, launched its election campaign in Trafford before Easter, anxious both to cement its already dominant presence in the north-west and also to turn some of the spotlight away from the capital, where expectations, especially in inner London, are so high.
English devolution is unlikely to be a big issue over the next four weeks (except in Sheffield, where there is a mayoral contest). But it should be higher up more agendas. These elections should encourage more debate about how England’s voices can best be heard and England be better governed. After all, by some yardsticks, England is now the largest country in Europe without its own parliament.