Labour's fight for social justice must unite cities and towns

The Labour Party was founded more than 100 years ago with the mission to challenge social divisions and inequality wherever it found them in Britain. Since then, our party has railed against the North-South divide, fought against class divisions, lifted children out of poverty, outlawed race discrimination and worked tirelessly against gender inequalities. 

At a time when the Tories are pursuing divisive policies which widen inequality, that mission is more important than ever and Labour’s manifesto rightly set out ambitious policies to tackle those long-standing injustices and divisions. 

But our country faces new divisions too - that the Tories are deepening, but that Labour needs to challenge, for example between Remain and Leave, young and old, city and town.

As Will Hutton said in a speech to the Tribune Group; "British society is no great shape to handle the economic buffeting [ahead]... Inequalities of income and wealth between generations, between regions and classes are unedifyingly high"

Already Labour is working hard to heal the Brexit divide and champion changes to close the ‘generation gap’. But what about the emerging and related gap between cities and towns? 

Cities were more likely to vote remain, towns to leave. Of the top 30 Remain voting areas, 22 were cities or areas of cities. By contrast, of the top 30 leave-voting areas, 27 were towns or districts containing towns.

Wigan MP Lisa Nandy has talked about the difference between the "liberal and ever-changing cities.... [and] the community and stability of the towns".

David Goodhart has argued there is a difference between the outlook for "citizens of anywhere" (more likely to be younger, and university graduates in cities) and "citizens of somewhere" (more likely to be older voters in towns).

In the US Presidential Election there was a much starker pattern as coastal cities voted heavily for Clinton and towns - including formerly Democrat rust belt towns - voted for Trump. Political scientist Katherine Cramer has described resentment from small town America towards the cities as part of what fuelled the vote for Trump. 

But this is about more than just culture, attitudes or who is out of touch with who. 

Economic change, austerity and Tory policies are having a different impact on cities and towns - with a profound impact on living standards. 

Bluntly, cities and university towns are better placed to seize the opportunities from current waves of economic and technological change, whilst industrial and provincial towns are bearing more of the costs. Cities have the strength to be confident and optimistic. Towns feel buffeted by the economic wind. And Tory policies are making that worse.

So many cities have had major retail investment at the heart of their regeneration programmes. Many towns – hit harder by online and out of town shopping – have seen their centres go into decline. 

New service, digital and platform jobs are growing in the cities. Old skilled manufacturing jobs are still going from the towns. Former industrial towns are being turned into commuter towns instead - but without any of the public transport or regeneration investment from a Tory Government that they need.

A study by Demos found that three in five English towns are falling behind their neighbouring cities on measures of socio-economic performance. On metrics from health to education, towns are increasingly underperforming compared to cities. 

Cities still face huge inequality within their urban areas - often including intense poverty and the most serious housing problems. But towns face different challenges as the Social Mobility Commission has found. Smaller urban areas have lower social mobility and there is often a sense that community and public assets are in decline.

Tory austerity is making that much worse. So whilst all areas have been hit by staffing shortages and underinvestment, towns are more likely to experience visible loss as services disappear altogether. Many towns have seen magistrates courts, A&E, swimming pools, libraries or all their neighbourhood police officers all withdrawn as financially stretched services retreat back to bigger centres. 

Devolution of political power is rightly giving Northern and Midlands cities a stronger voice. And Labour Mayors are doing a brilliant job. But towns aren't getting more power or more say, so many residents still feel powerless as their towns change or services decline. No wonder “Take back control” was such a potent slogan.

Labour has to challenge this real economic and political divide, rather than let it grow in a destructive way as it has done in the US. Our vision of shared common purpose and equality means that we cannot stand by while some communities are left disempowered or ignored, or while community resentments grow.

We want to create a society where everyone has a chance to flourish, where we invest in social and community capital so that wherever people live they should be able to enjoy a sense of local community pride as well as personal opportunity and fulfilment.

But that means we need practical policies and investment for towns too. Building on the great work and innovative ideas of local Labour councillors who are finding new ways to regenerate, inspire and strengthen smaller communities. We need better research - too often the data on towns just isn't collected. And we need a stronger Labour Town voice - it's why Labour MPs and councillors for towns and small cities are working together to put forward new plans.

It matters politically too. Already that city/town divide has had an impact on the Brexit vote. It will have an impact on the next election too.

Three quarters of the seats in England and Wales that Labour needs to win a majority are in towns. Three quarters of our most marginal Labour seats are towns too.

We've a lot to do. Politically, cities and university towns saw big surges for Labour at the last election with great results from Sheffield Hallam to Kensington to Canterbury. In towns the picture was much more mixed, with some post-industrial towns showing a swing to the Tories. And Mansfield elected a Conservative for the first time in its history. 

The mission of the Labour movement has always been an endeavour to bind people together in common cause: shared wealth, shared opportunities, shared values and a shared common life. But this kind of solidarity cannot be achieved when our sense of common cause has been so fractured by inequalities and by social and community division.

For generations Labour's fight for social justice has united the inner cities and the post-industrial towns, and when at our strongest we’ve won the support of the new towns and the suburbs too. Our socialism has drawn on both liberal and communitarian values, and must do so again.