Is there a north-south political divide? New landmark polling report finds it’s not so simple

1 May 2012 12:01 PM

Is there a north-south divide political divide?  A major study into public attitudes by Policy Exchange explores this issue and finds that social differences in England today are as much about town and country as north and south. The poll finds that the Conservative lead among people in the rural south is 42% but Labour’s lead among people in northern cities is 43%. In the rural north the Conservative lead is 10%, while Labour lead in London. 

The report – Northern Lights – examines the new political and social geography of England. It reveals that, whatever their real occupation, people living in the north perceive themselves as more working class than their southern counterparts. For example, skilled manual workers – C1 voters – in the north see themselves as working class, while in the south the same group describe themselves as middle class. Overall, 51% of northerners saw themselves as working class compared to only 38% of southerners.

However, the research finds that the way people vote is less and less determined by their social class, and more by how they think the government is performing and their attitudes to controversial issues like migration and crime.

The report finds sky-high levels of anti-political sentiment across the country, with 81% of people agreeing that politicians did not understand the real world. Much of Westminster political debate is seen as irrelevant to people’s everyday concerns. While polls often ask about the most important issues facing the nation as a whole, the report looks at what people think politicians could do to improve their own daily lives. People’s top priorities reveal that the cost of living is becoming the central issue for most families:

  1. Reducing energy bills (50%)
  2. Reducing fuel duty (43%)
  3. Reducing income tax (26%)
  4. Reducing VAT (26%)

The report also looked at how the public perceived Labour and the Conservatives. 64% of people felt that the Conservatives were the party of the rich, while 54% felt that Labour could not be trusted to run the economy. To address these issues, the number one concern of Labour swing voters was that the party needed to pledge to control welfare spending and stop people ripping off the welfare system. To address concerns about being the “party of the rich” swing Conservative voters wanted the party to reduce taxes for low earners, and reduce the cost of living for ordinary people.

When asked specifically about the background of MPs and what the parties should do to better reflect the country, swing voters actually suggested the same priorities for both Labour and the Conservatives. Recruiting more MPs with experience outside politics, more experience of business, and more working class MPs were the three responses for both parties. Northern voters thought that the Conservatives should recruit more MPs from the North, whereas southern voters did not feel that Labour needed to recruit more MPs from the South.

On specific policy statements:

  • People in the north (53%-32%) and south (51%-29%) think HS2 is not a good use of money.
  • Northerners believe that green policies are a mostly a “waste of money” (51%-36%) whereas southerners are more divided on the issue (46%-42%)
  • Both northerners (66%-26%) and southerners (61%-30%) think there should be “almost no immigration.”
  • Overall, 56% of people in Britain thought that the government should favour manufacturing over other sectors of the economy.

The main policy issue that divided northerners and southerners was over local pay bargaining. Whereas the majority of people in the South (52%-33%) agreed that public sector workers living in expensive areas should be paid more than public sector workers living in less expensive places, northerners disagreed (47%-38%).

Neil O’Brien, Director of Policy Exchange, “It’s certainly true that the Conservatives do better in the south and Labour in the north but within these regions there are huge differences. If you took the TransPennine Express from Liverpool to Newcastle you would find that 13 of the stops are in Conservative-held seats and 19 in Labour. It is in the northern cities specifically that the Conservatives do badly rather than the north as a whole.

“The results of our research show that political parties need to focus on addressing cost of living issues such as reducing energy bills and the price of petrol rather than broader issues affecting the state of the nation. The evidence also suggests that neither Labour or the Conservatives have succeeded in appealing to ordinary working people.”

For further information please contact Nick Faith on 07960 996 233 or at nick.faith@policyexchange.org.uk


YouGov polled 2002 people across Great Britain, and an additional 505 people in the North, in February (2507 in total).  This additional “boost” to the northern sample allows more robust conclusions to be drawn. The term “north” here refers to the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the “south” to London, the East, the South East and South West). They were asked to respond to a set of statements examining public attitudes towards politicians, political parties and the policy issues affecting their lives.  The report also contains analysis of qualitative research with voters in the North and Midlands carried out by Policy Exchange.

Related Publications