We Need to Talk About Towns

A week or before the US presidential election, I visited Youngstown in eastern Ohio. On a deserted street corner, across from a bail bondsman and a boarded up shop, an elderly white man explained why he was voting for Donald Trump. “This town used to be something. Now it’s nothing,” he told me. “You guys had Brexit, now it’s our turn.”

Trump’s was a victory for the town against the city. The sprawling metropolises on both coasts were, as ever, solidly blue on November 8. It was places like Youngstown – a city that has seen its population more than half amid four decades of relentless deindustrialization – that swung the race for the White House.

Much has been made about the similarities between Trump and Brexit: white working class alienation; the anger at globalization; the distrust of experts. There’s undoubtedly something in all of this. But the most glaring connection is where these two unlikely victories were forged: in towns and small cities of our former industrial heartlands.

Burnley, Bolton, Hull, Grimsby. The names are familiar from June 23. In many British towns, the pride and purpose of industry – the very thing that called these towns into being in the first place – has been replaced by call centres and low rent chain stores.

Youngstown’s municipal government has started to demolish entire city blocks. In Hartlepool, over 27 per cent of shops were vacant last year. Some 70 per cent of the town’s residents voted for Brexit.

Empty retail units and urban blight did not cause voters to flock to Farage or Trump, but they are a symptom of the problem.

Glasgow, where I live, has barely half as many inhabitants now as they had at their peaks in the middle of the 20th century. The ‘Second City of Empire’ has, to an extent, developed a service-sector economy to compensate. The expensive apartment complexes that look out onto what was once the busiest ship-building docks in the world have spawned restaurants, bars and shopping centres.

But the myriad smaller industrial towns peppered across central Scotland have continued their decline. The most dependable source of employment – the public sector – has been decimated by almost a decade of austerity.

The problem for our towns is not just economic, it is cultural too. Town living is not cool.

City burghers have all the cultural capital, the flat whites and art house cinemas. The country, the rural, has its place as the opposite of the insatiable urban. But what of the town? Who wants to live in what the Americans condescendingly call ‘flyover country’? Certainly not many of the media who, like me, grew up in towns and have little desire to ever return to them.

The turn to Brexit, and to Trump, is not just a primal scream against the metropolitan elite. Globalisation has not been the win-win game that some of its supporters had claimed it would be. It may have lifted millions out of poverty and triggered the emergence of a middle class in developing countries, but it has wrecked a huge price on the working class here.

The shift of manufacturing jobs to cheaper parts of the world decimated once self sufficient industrial communities. The jobs that came to replace them were often low paid, precarious and seen as emasculating by a generation of men raised on tales of life in the pits and the steel mills.

Ten of the twelve most struggling cities in Britain are in northern England, according to research released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation earlier this year. Rochdale fared worst in the survey. The response from local politicians? Shoot the messenger.

The JRF data was “outdated” and “does not show what is happening in Rochdale right now” said council chief executive Steve Rumbelow.

In reality, the picture is all too familiar. Most workers in the UK and the US have seen their real wages stagnate and even fall for decades. Employment opportunities have dried up in many areas, and job and social insecurity have spiked. And it’s likely to get worse.

In November, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that by 2021, real wages in the UK – pay adjusted for inflation – will still not have recovered to their 2008 level before the global financial crisis hit. That’s 14 years of zero wage growth in the UK.

So what’s the answer for our towns? The message from the Brexiters and Trump is simple: jobs. Strip out cheap foreign labour. Erect trade barriers. Do whatever it takes, even restarting the coal mines of West Virginia or bribing Nissan to stay in Sunderland.

But here’s the bad news: jobs won’t save our towns. If anything, they are about to witness even more unemployment in the years to come.

Having seen the industrial working class hollowed out by de-industrialisation, the skilled middle-classes are set to follow. Automation is a word on few politicians’ lips, but it should be. We are at the start of a massive information technology-fuelled disruption that will change the fundamental basis on which our world is ordered.

Mechanical improvements meant thousands of layoffs our factories over the past forty years. Soon it will be the same in our offices. Who needs accountants when, as happened in the US in 2014, 48 million people used online tax preparation software rather than professional help? What is the future of teaching when more people sign up for Harvard’s online courses in a single year than attended the actual university in its almost four centuries in existence?

The future will require skilled workers – in tech, in finance, even in the media – but few, if any, of these jobs will be located in towns that are often sited by historical accident, not on the confluence of rivers or roads but near deposits of long-exhausted raw materials.

We are not the only country faced with the problem of places that no longer have a clear function. Russia has nearly 20,000 ghost towns, mostly in the freezing north. In many instances. Moscow wrote off large chunks of the local population’s mortgage debt to encourage them to move. Would any British politician ever propose a similar scheme?

Our leaders will need to start thinking along such radical lines. With no prospect of paid work for all some form of guaranteed state supplement will need to be introduced. Such a “basic” or “citizen’s income” would need to be enough not just to survive on but to live the fulfilling lives on which social stability rests.

But even this is no panacea. As automation increases, the tax take will decrease as the numbers in work fall. Public money would need to be found. The only feasible option is an effective, global effort on tax avoidance.

This problem is not new. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown realised that, for many workers, wages were so low that they could not afford to live. But their solution – tax credits – did nothing to address the inequalities unleashed by globalization, where low wage workers could end up paying more tax than the massive corporations that employed them on insecure contracts.

No wonder places like Oldham, with its 365 mills all now empty, backed Brexit so enthusiastically. No wonder a once solid union city like Youngstown swung behind Trump. Neither have the answers to our towns’ problems, but unless we start to grapple with them soon that won’t even matter. It will already be too late.

This piece originally appeared in the New European, December 2016.

 

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