Does Social Cooperation Affect Macroeconomic Performance? Research Project

Socio-Political Consequences of Regional Economic Divergence

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Principal Investigator: Stephen Fisher

Stephen Fisher is Associate Professor in Political Sociology and Fellow of Trinity College. His research focuses on political attitudes and behaviour, especially on elections and voting in Britain and elsewhere. He has developed a method for long-range election forecasting, which was covered extensively in the media in the 2015 UK General Election.  

Co-Investigators: Alexander Betts (Refugee Studies Centre)

Project Summary

Regional economic divergence may generate negative social and political outcomes, and vice versa. The success of London appears to have contributed to the decline of other regions. Provincial towns and cities have suffered loss of heavy industry, declining investment and brain drain. These developments have been accompanied by rising levels of depression, disability and disaffection in provincial England. 


The extent to which these economic and social divergences are related, and how, is not known. Our aim is to quantify the socio-political causes and consequences of regional economic disparities.


This starts by generating regional indicators of various social and political outcomes. Our primary data source is the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey series that has run annually since 1983. These surveys are high-quality probability samples with face-to-face interviews. The BSA data will be supplemented with other high-quality academic led surveys such as the British Household Panel Study (BHPS) and the British Election Studies (BES) where possible.


Regional time-series from these surveys will be useful for understanding the trajectories of particular regions, and the convergence or divergence of regions collectively, with respect to various phenomena, including social cohesion (especially interpersonal trust), political alienation (including trust in government and trust in MPs), and attitudes to immigration, the EU, and other things.


These and other regional social indicators, such as housing, health and crime statistics, will be linked with election results and with the regional economic data. The combined dataset will be analysed with statistical techniques to try to identify the causes and consequences of regional inequalities.


Of all the theoretical ideas and hypotheses, most important will be assessment of the extent to which regional economic divergence is a leading indicator of negative socio-political outcomes. Initial analysis will consider whether regional economic circumstances in each year predict future socio-political outcomes. If, at the regional level, economic performance affects social outcomes then it follows that regional economic divergence would produce regional social disparities.


More subtle is the notion that regional economic divergence per se might have effects above and beyond economic circumstances, affecting social outcomes separately in different regions. Here the effects of regional economic divergence might well be region specific, or dependent on prior economic success. For instance, regional divergence might be good for socio-political outcomes in economically successful regions, but bad elsewhere. Social cohesion and political alienation might deteriorate if economic circumstances decline, but they might do so all the more in a region that is falling further behind, instead of growing in line with, other regions. We will test for such possibilities.


The panel data also allow us to test for feedback loops, whereby regional economic divergence leads to regional socio-political inequality, which in turn affects regional economic inequality. Time permitting, more complex problems addressing the roles of inter-regional migration, changing demographic composition, intra-regional inequality and polarisation, tipping points and other extraordinary dynamics. The research might further be expanded to include other countries. 


By understanding the interplay between socio-political and economic developments at the regional level, we can then help explain how national outcomes, including Brexit, are affected by regional divergence.



Working Paper

Socio-Political Consequences of Regional Economic Divergence in Britain: 1983-2018

Stephen Fisher, Martha Kirby, Eilidh Macfarlane | January 18, 2021


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