Suburbia and Party Politics

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 working-class 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 The suburbs have moved on: the tired clichés about suburban life and politics are out of date.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 working-class 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.

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