In Westminster, all the general election chatter is about Brexit. Will Tory Remainers turn Lib Dem? Will Labour leavers desert Jeremy Corbyn? As polling day draws near, however, the Europe obsession must recede. Politicians may not be able to look past last year’s referendum, but voters will have moved on. MPs will find that, as before, the great issue of our time will be just one of many on the doorsteps. This summer’s battleground won’t be Brussels. It will be suburbia.
Domestic matters will decide whether Theresa May returns to Downing Street with a fat majority, and no one is more domesticated than the average suburbanite. We are intensely local. We want good local schools and good local hospitals — we don’t like grand projects like HS2. If we’re asked to vote on Brexit, we’ll vote on it, but we’re far more concerned about parochial issues like refuse collection and potholed roads.
I know whereof I speak. Five years ago, after 25 years amid the Chiswick chatterati, I finally called time on my metropolitan lifestyle and hauled my elitist arse back to suburbia. It was the rudest awakening of my pampered life. Like countless middle-class Britons, I grew up in a humdrum dormitory town and couldn’t wait to leave it. When I first left suburbia 30 years ago, I vowed never to return. Now I am back among the privet hedges and crazy paving, and I can see what I was blind to in west London: that suburbia, not the inner city, is where elections (rather than referendums) are won and lost.
Like lots of snobby Londoners, I’d always looked down on suburban values. When I returned to suburbia, I realised these aspirations actually make good sense. I wanted a nice house with a garden, I wanted a decent education for my children and I wanted easy access to the city without the hassle of inner city life. Above all, I wanted to live among other people (of whatever creed or colour) who shared the same ambitions. What’s so bad about those attitudes? Why had I sneered at them for so long?
Suburbia is the hidden hinterland of British society. Nobody pays it much attention, but unless you’re very rich or very poor it’s where you’ll probably end up. And, as more Britons retreat to the suburbs, priced out of the city centres but incapable of surviving in the countryside, the political battle for suburbia will become increasingly intense. The political leader who wins this war will be the one who understands the suburban mindset, with its twin mantras of self-reliance and self-improvement. Cameron tried to play the part, but this was always a conceptual leap too far for him. Part country squire, part city gent, he never really ‘got’ suburbia. Ed Miliband never got it either, while Corbyn seems completely out of touch. The Labour leader’s concerns are entirely urban, rooted in the old-school socialism of unionised industry which already seemed antiquated when Neil Kinnock ran for PM.
Conversely, May seems instinctively in tune with suburban values. She’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue — and if that makes her come across as petty and small-minded, well, here in the suburbs that’s no bad thing. As you soon discover when you live here, suburban life is all about the small stuff. Why didn’t the binmen come this week? Why are they digging up the high street again?
Suburbia is the backbone of modern Britain, but it’s borne the brunt of recent changes in British society. As last year’s Smith Institute report confirmed, suburbs are at the sharp end. Inner cities attract more prosperous immigrants — poorer immigrants gravitate towards the outskirts (no wonder the five London boroughs which voted leave were all suburban). Poverty is increasing in the suburbs and declining in the inner cities. Inner London gained half a million jobs between 2003 and 2013 — outer London gained 8,000. Government money has been lavished on the inner cities — suburbia has been left to sink or swim.
Ruislip, my suburban home, is the acme of suburbia. With urban sprawl on one side and farmland on the other, it’s marooned between town and country. And as developers gobble up the Green Belt, it’s fast becoming the kind of netherworld where more and more of us will end up living. Ruislip’s two seats are both Tory strongholds: Boris held Uxbridge & South Ruislip with a 10,000 majority at the last election; Nick Hurd held Ruislip, Northwood & Pinner with a stonking 20,000. But it could have been a different story if Cameron hadn’t offered these Tory voters that referendum (Ukip was the only party I actually saw campaigning around here). Dave didn’t understand suburbia, which is why he thought he could persuade the suburbs to vote remain, while Boris connected with Ruislip Man by throwing in his lot with the Leave campaign.
Both Ruislip seats will be bankers for the Tories at this election, but to build a decent majority in the House of Commons, Mrs May will be eyeing suburban marginals such as Enfield North, Ilford North and Wirral West. All of these are Labour seats with wafer-thin majorities. If Mrs May has the courage to think local, she can steal these seats from Corbyn. Will Ukip pose a threat? Not now that May has confirmed her Brexit credentials. The Liberal Democrats will do well — particularly in more affluent, Remainist suburbs, but beyond the south-east their prospects are more patchy.
From Margaret Thatcher’s Essex Man to Tony Blair’s Mondeo Man, suburbia has been the bellwether of electoral success, so why do politicians pay it such scant attention? The reasons are rooted in our history. For centuries, the great divide in British culture has been between the country and the city. Suburbia never got a look-in. Even the egalitarian George Orwell pooh-poohed suburbia as ‘a prison with the cells all in a row’. Artists paint landscapes or cityscapes — they don’t paint suburban semis.
The only art form that’s embraced suburbia has been the situation comedy. This lightweight genre has been the only space where suburban life has been examined —in a spirt of gentle mockery, but with genuine affection. From Terry and June and George and Mildred to Keeping Up Appearances, these sitcoms at least acknowledged that suburbia existed. No wonder they have always been so popular. For all their faults and limitations, at least they are engaged with the world where most of us really live.
May’s support for local issues such as Heathrow expansion and HS2 will hurt her in surburbia. Both issues are anathema to suburbanites — the silent majority, the people who have not spoken yet. In Chiswick, where I used to live, the white vans belonged to the people who were doing the loft extensions. In Ruislip, they belong to the people who live here. These are the foot soldiers of Thatcherism — skilled workers who started their own businesses, bought and renovated their own houses and became the pioneers of the property boom. Margaret Thatcher (and Tony Blair) reached out to these suburban voters. Can Mrs May do the same?
James Forsyth discusses the snap election with Bobby Duffy from Ipsos MORI and Richard Angell from Progress: