Suburbia and Party Politics

By Clapson, Mark | History Today, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Suburbia and Party Politics


Clapson, Mark, History Today


Mark Clapson considers that suburbia holds the key to recent history on both sides of the Atlantic.

IN BOTH ENGLAND and the USA, the politics of the suburbs are often assumed to be conservative, conformist, and petit bourgeois. Yet suburbia holds the key to the recent electoral triumphs of the New Democrats and New Labour over their conservative opponents.

During the 1990s, at general elections and presidential elections, the phrases `Middle England' and `Middle America' were used to describe the huge, amorphous constituency where the elections would be won or lost. Over half of the population of both countries lives in a suburban home. Yet `middle' no longer means middle class: it includes the affluent workingclass and blue-collar suburbs. It also embraces the growing diversity in ethnic groups who have quit the poorer parts of town. No longer can suburbia be dismissed as a boring dormitory for the white, snooty, conservative-voting middle classes. The suburbs have moved on: the tired cliches about suburban life and politics are out of date.

Labour won the British general election of 1945 with a huge majority, yet in 1951, 1955 and 1959 it lost to the Conservatives. Following the defeat in 1955, many in the party worried that it was losing its grip on its heartland constituency, the working classes. In an era of full employment, rising incomes, and dramatically improved housing, it appeared that ordinary working voters were opting for the party that appealed to their materialism rather than to any socialist ideal. There was also concern that the working class was losing its collective community identity. And where was all this happening? On the new suburban housing estates, especially the new housing aimed at home-owners. Sociologists who studied workingclass migrants from poor housing areas to new estates declared that the working classes were undergoing embourgeoisement, an adoption of the allegedly individualistic and private values of the middle classes.

This fear stimulated revisionism and modernisation amongst Labour strategists in the later 1950s. For C. A. R. Crosland in 1956, `the housing migration from the solidly working-class slum areas into socially more fluid suburban estates' was coterminous with increasing affluence and consumption, and `the sudden irruption of the upper working-class into the world of automobiles, gadgets and consumer durables'. Mark Abrams was also concerned that improving living standards and growing homeownership among the most highly-paid workers might render them more conservative in their voting habits.

Labour thinkers were worried, then, about the suburban incorporation of the working classes. But in addition, there was the expanding lower-middle class that Labour had to contend with, a consequence of the growth of white-collar employment. This problem can be seen in the thinking of Merlyn Rees, a Labour politician in the County of Middlesex, a once-rural county which had been sprawled through by metropolitan development between the wars. Rees was from a South Wales mining family who moved to Wembley, within the expanding suburbs of Middlesex, following the General Strike of 1926. This was part of a wider Welsh migration to suburban London and other parts of southern England, as interwar economic desperation in the towns and valleys drove people to look for work elsewhere.

Rees contested Harrow in Middlesex for Labour at the 1955 and 1959 elections. He was adamant that if Labour wanted to win such areas, it needed to appeal to the values of suburbanites. In a contribution to Political Quarterly during 1960, Rees argued that a Labour Party whose imagery and rhetoric were still dominated by pit-head gantries, or by the defeated ex-combatants of the Spanish Civil War, was doomed. In attempting to win the suburbs, Labour had to modernise its image. This the party leader Harold Wilson attempted to do, up to and beyond the 1964 general election, which Labour narrowly won. …

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