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27 July 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:27pm

What London’s suburbs have in common with Northern towns

When it comes to Brexit, inner London is in tune with other Remain-voting regions, but not its own commuter belt. 

By Michael Clemence

Politics, income and age distribution are some of the measures that show a gulf separating Londoners from people living in the rest of the country. But does this divide replicate itself in their views of what they consider the key issues for Britain? Here we use data collected in the first half of 2018 by the Ipsos Mori Issues Index to show that while divisions do exist, a greater diversity of opinion can be found within the capital than between other parts of the country.

At the national level, 2018 has thus far been dominated by public concern about Brexit and the NHS. Close to half of Britons have named either the health service (49 per cent) or the UK’s exit from the EU (46 per cent) as one of the biggest issues facing Britain so far this year. And despite it being slightly behind the NHS overall, twice as many see Brexit as the single biggest issue for the country (30 per cent, against 15 per cent for the NHS). Some way behind this top two sits a bracket of six issues, each likely to be mentioned by roughly a fifth of the British population.

In London, the picture is notably different. While Brexit and the NHS remain the two biggest issues overall, on 39 per cent apiece, both score significantly lower than the national average. Other issues, meanwhile, score more highly in the capital than elsewhere – most notably housing (mentioned by 32 per cent of Londoners) and crime (25 per cent), but also the economy (22 per cent) and poverty and inequality (20 per cent). The environment and pollution, which ranks 12th nationally, also moves into the top ten when we focus on Londoners’ views.

The fact that Londoners are less concerned about Brexit than the British population at large is intriguing, as it contradicts a pattern that emerges when we look at all other regions in Britain.

Put simply, the level of concern about Brexit is generally higher in those areas where the Remain vote was strongest at the referendum. This relationship is clearest in Scotland, but is also in evidence in the south east and south west of England, both of which are more worried about Brexit than average and were some of the regions where the referendum vote was closest. Conversely, the areas which voted most strongly to leave – the Midlands, the north east of England and Yorkshire and Humber – are the least likely to say Brexit is a big issue for Britain (although it is a top two issue for all British regions).

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London, which backed Remain, is a notable exception to this rule. There are likely to be a multitude of reasons as to why: the capital’s relatively youthful population (younger people might have voted Remain, but they tend to be less concerned by Brexit) and the higher scores for a number of other issues such as housing (meaning Brexit may be less of a focus), could be part of it.

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The fact that we record several issues scoring highly in London also suggests that there is a greater diversity of opinion when it comes to the issues facing Britain within London than between London and Britain. To analyse this further, we have split London into two halves – the metropolitan centre and the suburban periphery.

Residents of inner London – the boroughs within the pre-1966 County of London plus Newham – hold views that are in fact relatively close to the rest of the country. Close to half mention either the NHS or Brexit as a worry (49 per cent and 47 per cent).

Where they differ is that poverty and inequality ranks third on 30 per cent, ten percentage points above the national average, and housing is fourth on 27 per cent, eight points above the British figure. Concern about environment and pollution climbs to 15 per cent among inner London residents, and 13 per cent are worried about public service provision more generally.

By contrast, those living in London’s outer ring have a more diverse set of concerns, that differs from inner Londoners and Britons more generally. Outer Londoners place near-equal importance on three issues – housing (35 per cent), Brexit (35 per cent) and the NHS (33 per cent). The issue of housing ranks significantly higher as a concern than it does in inner London, as well as in the country at large.

Crime also stands out as a major concern: 31 per cent of outer Londoners see it as a big issue, almost double the proportion of inner Londoners (17 per cent). And while their views are in line with the national average (21 per cent), the proportion of outer Londoners worried about immigration is double the inner London total (20 per cent to 11 per cent). We see further disagreement within London on the importance of poverty and inequality: those in suburban areas are half as likely as inner Londoners to cite this as an important issue for Britain (15 per cent compared with 30 per cent).

This split goes part of the way towards an explanation of why the residents of London, our Remain-voting bastion, appear to be (slightly) less concerned about Brexit than might be expected. While inner Londoners assign a level of concern to Brexit very similar to that seen across the nation as a whole, those in outer London place equal importance on issues related to their own standard of living such as housing and crime, as they do to the still-theoretical topic of Brexit.

In fact, the data makes outer London more closely resemble the non-metropolitan areas outside the south of England than it does the centre of the capital. This can be seen in the referendum result too – while 70 per cent of inner London voted to remain in the EU, among outer Londoners the figure was 54 per cent.

Michael Clemence is research manager at Ipsos MORI.

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