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New Towns will never be classless utopias They have been bellwethers of national voting patterns

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner on a visit to Derby in April (Getty Images)

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner on a visit to Derby in April (Getty Images)


June 14, 2024   6 mins

When will Britain’s New Towns stop feeling so new? “Old Labour ideas are right for new times,” insisted Keir Starmer at party conference last year. Yesterday’s manifesto launch embodied this spirit: “A Labour government will build a new generation of new towns,” it declared.

But what of those that already exist? Once imagined as bastions of social democracy, many in the South East have, since the Seventies, been reliable bellwethers of broader national voting trends. Even today, despite Labour overstating the significance of their residents, the long story of New Town politics remains fascinating as much for what it reveals of the observers as of the observed.

Once conceived by the Labour government in 1946, 11 New Towns were designated in the first phase of construction, with eight forming a ring around London, intended to draw a population of almost 400,000 from a capital then considered dangerously overcrowded. The hopes expressed by Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, in introducing the legislation seem impossibly utopian in these more jaded times. Silkin himself was unembarrassed in channelling Sir Thomas More and thought it “not unreasonable to expect that that Utopia of 1516 should be translated into practical reality in 1946”.

Silkin believed “neighbourhood units, each unit with its own shops, schools, open spaces, community halls and other amenities” (what we might call today a “15-minute city”) would bring people of all classes together. When, having attended some community facility or event together, New Town residents left to go home, he did “not want the better-off people to go to the right and the less well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other, ‘Are you going my way?’”. The true measure of New Town success, he said, would be “the kind of citizens they produce, by whether they create this spirit of friendship, neighbourliness and comradeship”.

Though Conservative critics may have felt differently, this was not ostensibly a party political appeal. Rather, it speaks to a short-lived moment in British politics when this old country was fundamentally reimagined and a new more rationally organised, socially just and classless society believed possible. It’s no spoiler to state that such extravagant hopes were destined for disappointment, but it’s worth dissecting both their trajectory and the thinking that underlay them.

“It’s no spoiler to state that such extravagant hopes were destined for disappointment.”

Stevenage was the first New Town to be designated, in November 1946, and it was one built, more than literally, by its construction workers. Of the first 2,000 houses completed by the Development Corporation (all what we would now call social rented), over a quarter went to building workers and their families. This was a unionised workforce that came to take a leading role in tenants’ associations, community campaigns and local government.

By the Sixties, however, one perceives a certain ambivalence in attitudes towards Stevenage from some who had been its biggest supporters. Frederic Osborn and Arnold Whittick welcomed the New Town’s “dramatic societies, art clubs, horticultural and gardening societies, political groups, sports clubs for almost every sport, numerous women’s and youth organisations”, but somehow seemed less enamoured of the new Locarno ballroom and “American-style bowling hall”. They concluded:

“The people have had well-paid regular jobs in the factories and this has conduced to producing a feeling of contentment. It has enabled them to furnish their homes well, to acquire television, cars, and domestic gadgets, so that many who came as habitual grousers were transformed into contented citizens in a few years.”

Long before he became a celebrated socialist historian, a young Raphael Samuel, surveying attitudes in Stevenage that might explain Labour’s third consecutive general election defeat in 1959, lamented the “pattern of mass media-imposed misery” that apparently fuelled the acquisitive consumerism of many of his interviewees. This was reflected too in aspirations towards owner occupation; a 1966 survey found that 43% of Development Corporation tenants in Stevenage wanted to own their own home and 93% thought the Corporation should sell houses to sitting tenants. The popularity of Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy in the Eighties should come as no surprise.

All this played out to a backdrop of surprising nostalgia for what Michael Young and Peter Willmott (whose 1957 book, Family and Kinship in East London, provided one of its foundational texts) called the “sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries” of the slum districts from which many New Town dwellers had relocated. Their move, the authors suggested, marked a shift from “a people-centred to a house-centred existence”. The implicit suggestion was that the working class was becoming literally and metaphorically domesticated.

Sociologists soon coined the term “the affluent worker”; the title of a major study of Luton workers published by John Goldthorpe et al in 1968. (Employment and lifestyle patterns in Luton were similar to those of nearby New Towns.) The notion that rising living standards would inevitably condition the working class to vote Conservative grew. A 1960 book, Must Labour Lose?, concluded pessimistically that it seemed, in the short term at least, that it must. Left-wing intellectuals talked of embourgeoisement, a belief that working people were adopting middle-class lifestyles and values.

But, of course, the Labour Party won the 1964 and 1966 general elections and Shirley Williams held the Stevenage constituency for Labour from 1964 to 1979.  The reality was more complex — it always is. Dissecting the Stevenage data, Jon Lawrence found that “people’s ambition to ‘better’ themselves… was intertwined with an awareness that this was also a collective endeavour”. Goldthorpe et al concluded that “our affluent workers remain, in spite of their affluence, men who live by selling their labour power to their employers in return for wages”.

In other words, aspiration and self-improvement were not antithetical to working-class affiliations but central to them. There remains, however, a caveat. This was not necessarily the self-improvement that earnest liberal reformers and the more idealistic Labour politicians envisaged. Silkin’s speech had referred to New Town residents enjoying “amateur theatricals” or playing “their part in a health centre or community centre”. One infers, perhaps unfairly, from the words of Osborne and Whittick a faint disappointment that Stevenage residents had been so easily bought off by consumer baubles. The laudable drive to improve working-class conditions has very often been associated with a desire to “improve” the working class themselves according to more elite ideas of what constituted rational, respectable or worthy behaviour.

As to class — a felt sense of one’s socioeconomic status and position, it remained central to people’s lived experience. Hierarchy, a certain precarity even in the prosperous Sixties, remained defining. It encouraged working-class people to join a union; it disposed them to vote Labour when the party spoke most directly to their interests and values. At the time, the Conservatives were signed up to a broadly social democratic, post-war political consensus centred on full employment, a mixed economy and the National Health Service. To many working-class electors, there was no great betrayal in voting for a party pledged to sustain the progress made since 1945.

Twenty years on much had changed. The New Towns were older, somehow more ordinary, and subject to some of the same economic pressures that afflicted more traditional working-class areas. The post-war consensus had frayed and then been broken by the election of a New Right Conservative government in 1979 that was to hold office for eighteen years. “Basildon Man” — more often “Essex Man” — became the avatar of this shift. Basildon had been created a New Town in 1948 but, far from embodying the progressive ideals of its post-war foundation, it now came to represent pure Thatcherism. To advocates, such as Simon Heffer who coined the “Essex Man” phrase in 1990, these were people who had escaped what he described as “the nasty workers’ barracks” of the New Towns to pursue an unashamedly acquisitive and individualist lifestyle of material self-improvement. (Harry Enfield’s character “Loadsamoney” was their hostile caricature.) Critics echoed Heffer’s definition for the most part but saw only boorish vulgarity lacking redeeming features. This was “the affluent worker” gone very rogue. Both Basildon and Stevenage (under shifting boundaries) were securely Conservative from 1979 to 1997.

It takes perhaps another political stereotype to allow a more nuanced and sympathetic view of the politics in play here. Tony Blair introduced us to “Mondeo Man” in his 1996 speech to the Labour conference. He had met him, so he claimed, four years earlier “in the Midlands on an ordinary, suburban estate”, polishing his Sierra. (It became a Mondeo after Ford phased out its Sierra line.)

“His Dad always voted Labour, he said. He used to vote Labour too. But he’d bought his own house now. He’d set up his own business. He was doing quite nicely. “So, I’ve become a Tory”, he said… His instincts were to get on in life. And he thought our instincts were to stop him.” 

“But that,” Blair continued, “was never our history or purpose.” In many ways, the New Labour project — like it or loathe it — was an attempt to persuade that man and a wider cohort of so-called C2 voters in skilled manual occupations that Labour was the party that both respected and best reflected their interests.

Basildon and Stevenage were Labour-held from 1997 to 2010, but have voted Tory ever since.  After a run of four election defeats, Starmer’s project — aided greatly by the record of successive Conservative governments — has been to offer just that reassurance and promise again, now not only to “Stevenage Woman” (the “Fortysomething disillusioned suburban voters with little time for politics” once thought vital to Labour gains), but to a far wider swathe of voters who have seen their living standards fall and the public services on which they depend decimated. In this context, electorally, ideologically perhaps, the red meat of socialism is subordinate, even counterproductive.

The New Town programme — 32 developed between 1946 and 1996, now housing around 2.8 million people — was an astonishing achievement, a mark of government ambition and accomplishment that today seems almost unimaginable. That the more extravagant hopes placed in it were unfulfilled is unsurprising, but it reminds us that any politics predicated on myths of class identity and destiny — whether Marxist-inspired or more modestly socialist — is bound for failure. Labour’s job now, as it has always been, is to persuade working-class and middle-class voters to vote for it not out of virtue but out of self-interest. That perhaps is the real lesson of New Town politics.


John Boughton is the author of Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing and the blog Municipal Dreams.

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RA Znayder
RA Znayder
1 month ago

People’s ambition to ‘better’ themselves… was intertwined with an awareness that this was also a collective endeavour

Indeed, the working- and middle classes are not even close to internalizing such attitudes today. Is that a good thing? From the anekdotes the author presents it is quite understandable that ‘normal people’ responded positive to Thatcher-like policies. Personal responsibility and the feeling you can make it on your own without being held back are attractive values. However, what those who still have to sell their labor tend to forget is that even if one is doing well, they are bound to lose it again in a ‘deregulated’ crony system with capital accumulation as its main feature.
The right to buy and becoming a property owner is great. Similarly, many home owners today are quite optimistic after their house prices skyrocketed (with help from the central banks). But while those in the middle class gained a home and some wealth, the ultra-wealthy accumulated hundreds of homes and hundreds of millions in additional wealth. Give it one or two generation and they will buy everything you had while your children and grandchildren will be back in the proletariat. Already a generation grows up that does not care about the right to buy but would settle for a right not to be homeless (which, by the way, is a human right). That renting something entails spending 80% of your income on someone else’s mortgage seems a given for this generation. Moreover, the ultra-wealthy now own so much they wield a lot of influence over government policy and thus make sure the government will protect their assets. What all of this shows is that the reality of class is still very much alive. It is important to stay organized. But it remains to be seen if people can find actual solidarity again, society is much more fragmented.
An unorganized working- and middle class are no match for capital accumulating elites. Nor are you part of that elite if you’re upper middle class. In the end, the masses mostly just have their numbers and if you forget that, you will find out the hard way.

George Venning
George Venning
1 month ago

What a profoundly stupid headline. Nothing will ever be a utopia and nor will anything ever be classless.
Indeed, the New Towns were based on Ebeneezer Howard’s Garden City concept – which is what Conservatives tend to call New Towns when they toy with the concept of building them.
That basic recipe is extremely simple. If you start with a piece of land in the middle of nowhere and you buy it for what it is presently worth (farmland is worth c£20,000/acre) and thern you build houses on it, you should end up with an almighty surplus. That surplus can then be ploughed back into providing all the things that make a town a town but which don’t necessarily cover their costs..
The offer of living (normally cheaply) in this new place then competes with the squalid conditions of existing cities to which, for all their faults, many of the residents remain so tied (because cities already have amenities and jobs etc).
Moreover, the success or otherwise of the offer provided by New Towns has a salutary impact on the developmental offer elsewhere because why would you want to live in a suburban dormitory development on the edge of a big city if you could live in a bustling little town full of excited people determined to make a new, better life in this new and better place?
The success of a new town therefore depends not on the formula – which is essentialy the same whenever you build a city – it rests on the quality of the implementation. Milton Keynes is a profoundly different place to Basildon and different again from Chandigarh.
The quesiton to me is what these new towns should be like. Howard’s vision was of strikingly low density but that was when people walked considerable distances to places, such a low density city would now rely on the car – as Milton Keynes (and Welwyn) both do. Historically, the charm of small cities arose from their density and the civic life it fostered but, since Howard, the charm of ex-urban living has been centred on the opposite – the individual domestic home, the allotment, rus in urbe etc. The challenge of the new towns and cities that we wish to build now will be how to reconcile what people want (as individual consumers) with what makes the city work well as a whole.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
29 days ago
Reply to  George Venning

Since you seem to agree with the author about the unlikely achievement of classless utopias, I don’t really understand your dyspeptic and rather rude first sentence! But of course there are different degrees of class segregation and inequality.

Whether not “classless” societies can ever actually be achieved and I would agree since we are not bees or ants it seems unlikely (and even they have different castes) – the IDEA of abolishing class or elevating the working class has been extremely politically and socially important, and has court of course has led to many hugely consequential revolutions albeit usually with very adverse consequences.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

My suspicion is that planned communities, like new towns, kibbutzim, or Poundbury are at risk of seeming ‘constructed’, like film sets.
I rather suspect that people prefer to live somewhere that has ‘grown’ and (importantly) adjusted over the years.

John Tyler
John Tyler
1 month ago

I was struck by the observation that ‘improving’ conditions for the working class has often been linked with the idea of improving the people themselves. Isn’t this exactly the current consensus amongst our political and intellectual elites? Could it be that the ignorant bigots of the working class see the sheer arrogance of their masters as offensive? Is it possible that the culturally poor and morally corrupt workers have more in common with their reactionary, racist and utterly phobic middle-class neighbours than the politicians telling them how they should improve?

I suspect that most normal people appreciate greater comfort and personal security, but are most motivated by an emotional aspiration to rise up the pecking order, to be respected, to be valued.

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
1 month ago
Reply to  John Tyler

I think the word you’re looking for is ‘conditioning’, not improving. Also if they want to improve the working class as a people, perhaps they should be going back to improving their conditions first, instead of making them worse.
That said, emancipation of the working class has been a political project for a long time. But there seem to be limits. You don’t want a working class educated enough and with enough time on their hands to actually read and understand Rousseau, Marx and John Locke. It is hard to rule such people as we saw in ’68.

John Tyler
John Tyler
1 month ago
Reply to  RA Znayder

Ha ha! You’re as cynical as I am!

Pip G
Pip G
1 month ago

Fascinating. After a World War Britain had huge public Debt and crumbling infrastructure. Our forebears were able to set a vision (housing) and implement it in a short time.
So what has changed? We still have high public Debt and lack of housing. What has changed is that, in the 1940s, politicians had vision and applied it. They respected the culture of the working class even if they did not understand it. Today we have a remote liberal elite which is contemptuous of the working class, not least for refusing to subscribe to ‘Identity politics’ and other unpleasant causes; while seeking to line their own pockets.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

I grew up in the 1960s in a “working class” area and the atmosphere was very aspirational. All around us our neighbours wanted to “get on” both in terms of their circumstances and status. I saw this as an Observer because my own parents took a (I now think) perverse pride in being non-aspirational,on not “keeping up with the Joneses”. I remember how the flood of white goods was a THING,as everyone acquired things for their kitchen,then more houses had cars outside them. At school the other girls would with pride and respect relate how their Mum went to this or that newly opened supermarket and bought a whole lot of grocery items at a price much lower than the traditional old shop on the corner. They were proud of their astute Mums canniness. And yet by the early 1970s the zeitgeist had changed.
There was still a lot of “consumer society” ahead and more shiny new objects of desire,baubles for us earning a wage people to give our money back to them for,but that sense of “the skies the limit” had gone. I must admit I read with a groan how those New Towns started off with all those Arts Groups,and Drama Societies and Gardening Clubs and educational worthy outside of work activity.