When the Tories proposed the idea of imposing lower regional pay on public sector workers, it hit a nerve.
Many who live outside the M25 already feel marginalised by the political establishment in London. The Tories in particular are often seen as pursuing a vendetta against the supposedly more working class north.
Whole towns were devastated in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s attacks on jobs in manufacturing and mining.
Many of these towns have never fully recovered—working class people there are more likely to find themselves unemployed than in other regions. And those who do work are more likely to be in the public sector.
This ranks them among the main targets of the government’s attacks.
But the reality of class is far more than geography. There are thousands of working class people in every town, and millions in every region.
London has the biggest gap between rich and poor in Britain.
It is the home of the country’s business and political elite, but also of the biggest concentration of workers who took part in the national public sector strikes.
And its vast reservoirs of urban poverty were the starting point for riots last August that found echoes as far north as Salford and Manchester.
Even in David Cameron’s posh Oxfordshire constituency, council workers struck repeatedly against cuts last year. Meanwhile many business executives are based in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow.
Of course there are important differences between regions. These are a legacy of how capitalism developed in Britain.
The industrial revolution transformed certain parts of the country and underdeveloped others. And as different industries developed and declined, the map was redrawn again and again.
This is part of how capitalism works. In the words of Karl Marx, its very survival depends on “constantly revolutionising the means of production and, with them, the whole relations of society”.
So while today it is the south east that is seen as the privileged region, in the 19th century it would have been the north west of England instead.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South recorded the culture shock of a woman who moves from the rural south to a fictionalised industrial Manchester.
Gaskell saw the north in terms of middle class entrepreneurs. She thought they represented the future for Britain, while the south remained stuck in the past.
But she also acknowledged the brutal conditions faced by workers in the northern factories.
Today London has some of the highest prices in the country—especially for housing. But this doesn’t mean all Londoners are rich—it means that they are more likely to struggle to pay the rent, even for cramped, low quality homes.
And many towns in Kent and the rest of the south east are blighted by severe unemployment.
It’s true that a north-south divide does show up on the maps of some socio-economic indicators—although it is rarely particularly clear-cut.
For instance the map of how many people from each area get into elite universities does split along the line from the Wash to the Severn.
And these discrepancies certainly show up in politics. The Tories are the largest party in parliament, but have only one MP in the whole of Scotland.
They don’t have a single councillor in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield or Newcastle.
But what we have in common is more important—and emphasising regional differences can be a cheap trick used to divide us.
In February a Tory councillor in Cheltenham even tried to argue that banning northerners from moving southwards—instead of building council houses—could solve housing shortages in Gloucestershire.
Politicians and pundits will do everything to imagine class in terms of lifestyle, accents, attitudes—anything other than economic reality. The stereotypes of north and south can play into their hands.
An unemployed person in Newcastle has no common interests with the bosses of Greggs bakers who are based in that town. But they have everything in common with the unemployed forced onto workfare in branches of Greggs in London.
Throughout Britain, rich and poor live within a stone’s throw of each other. That creates the potential for class struggle to break out almost anywhere—and for sparks in any given region to light fires across the country.