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Home Opinion Reshaping the politics of contemporary democracies: cosmopolitan v shrinking dynamics
Democracy • Participation • Engagement

Reshaping the politics of contemporary democracies: cosmopolitan v shrinking dynamics

Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker - 22 October 2015

Centralised, nationally oriented party structures on both the left and right must adapt in order to cope in an increasingly divergent world

In a recent pamphlet, Jeremy Cliffe argues that 21st century politics will be shaped by the emergence of a cosmopolitan shift in demography. This phenomenon is led by the big cities that are attracting ever more people, jobs and investment for their university-educated and ethnically diverse populations. We would argue that the advance of cosmopolitanism tells only half the story and that the dilemma for political parties is acute as Britain’s future lies on two divergent paths: one cosmopolitan and one shrinking. To add further complexity to this predicament, citizens in both types of area share a lack of faith in politics.

There is growing divide between global cosmopolitan cities and shrinking urban conurbations with the dynamic of global competition driving both developments. Cosmopolitan centres are the gainers in a new system of global production, manufacturing, distribution and consumption that has led to new urban forms made possible by the revolution in logistics and new technologies. These global urban centres are highly connected, highly innovative, well-networked, attracting skilled populations, often supported by inward migration, and display the qualities of cosmopolitan urbanism. Simultaneously, other towns, cities and entire regions are experiencing the outflow of capital and human resources, and are suffering from a lack of entrepreneurship, low levels of innovation, cultural nostalgia and disconnectedness from the values of the metropolitan elite, and are largely ignored by policymakers. These shrinking urban locations are the other side of the coin; for them the story is of being left behind as old industries die or as old roles become obsolete, and as successive governments have left them to fend for themselves. Populations may be declining, the skilled workers and the young are leaving in search of opportunity and these places are increasingly disconnected from the dynamic sectors of the economy, as well as the social liberalism of hyper-modern global cities in which the political, economic and media classes plough their furrow.

These developments are not temporary or transitional. Globally connected urban areas are experiencing a sustained and self-reinforcing growth and shrinking cities are struggling to overcome the challenges of decline as part of a new capitalist order. The shrinking cities as new urban analysis suggests cannot easily be dragged into the slipstream of cosmopolitans by policy interventions. The forces that are driving rampant cosmopolitanism are also driving the gradual withering of shrinking conurbations.

What is also clear is that these trends are reshaping and fracturing politics in such a way that creates a major dilemma for all parties in the short- and longer-term: political attitudes and engagement are heading in opposed directions in the two types of area. A survey conducted by Populus earlier this year, commissioned by the Universities of Canberra and Southampton, allows us to compare cosmopolitan areas to shrinking areas to explore these different forces. Using Mosaic geodemographic categories, we identified a set of constituencies resembling the profiles of Cambridge and Clacton – places that previously have been characterised as harbingers of Britain’s very different futures. This approach allows us to explore differences in political attitudes and participation in cosmopolitan and shrinking settings.

To illustrate these distinctive demographics of place, some 53 per cent of respondents in cosmopolitan areas hold a degree or an equivalent professional qualification, compared to 37 per cent in shrinking areas. In shrinking locations, 32 per cent of people consume tabloid newspapers or websites, whereas in cosmopolitan areas the figure is just 19 per cent. But more importantly what are the differences in terms of political outlook and forms of politics that are being practiced?

These communities have very different attitudes on issues of Europe and immigration, as Table 1 shows. Shrinking areas tend to be more negative about recent developments, expressing concern about both immigration and the EU. In this respect, cosmopolitans have a much more outward-looking perspective on forces and institutions of the global economy, whereas shrinkers are more resistant and nostalgic.


Table 1


Cosmopolitan (%)

Shrinking (%)

Immigration bad for the economy



Immigration undermines cultural life



Disapprove of EU membership



Would like to turn clock back to 20-30 years ago




The populations of these places exhibit distinct views on important areas on social change, as shown in Table 2. Cosmopolitan areas tend to be much less resistant to equality agendas across a range of social divides – ethnicity, gender and sexuality. This in part reflects the contrasting social contexts of these two sets of places, but also hints at the sorts of politics that they might produce.


Table 2


Cosmopolitan (%)

Shrinking (%)

Equalities for minorities gone too far



Equality for women gone too far



Equality for gays and lesbians gone too far




More significantly, citizens in cosmopolitan and shrinking areas engage in politics in distinctive ways, as Table 3 demonstrates. While there are strong similarities for participation in a range of traditional off-line methods, there are some differences in political activities that take place online. Specifically, cosmopolitan residents are more likely to share political ideas through social media or join e-campaigns. We also find they are significantly more likely to have joined a demonstration. The cosmopolitan/shrinking schism may, therefore, be another venue for the supposed divide between the new and old politics.


Table 3

Actions ever undertaken

Cosmopolitan (%)

Shrinking (%)




Presented views to official



Signed petition






Joined political party



Joined demonstration



Active role in campaign



Stood for office






Shared ideas through social media



Joined e-campaign



Online advocacy



Crowd funding




Citizens in cosmopolitan and shrinking places tend to hold contrasting views about trends of social change and are developing their own repertoires of engagement. Despite this, both sets of citizens are very doubtful about the politics that is currently on offer. As Table 4 indicates, both share a lot of the same disaffection towards politics and politicians. Both groups disagree that governments cannot make a difference to the problems facing Britain but fear that politicians are too self-serving and short-termist. Both have little trust in politicians and feel that politicians don’t care about them, although that view is marginally more strongly held in shrinking areas.


Table 4

Agreement with statement:

Cosmopolitan (%)

Shrinking (%)

Governments can’t make a difference to the major social and economic problems facing Britain



Politics dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting interests of the rich and powerful



Little or no trust in politicians



Politicians too focused on short-term chasing of headlines



Politicians don’t care what people like me think



Politicians have technical knowledge to solve the problems facing Britain today



Politics hasn’t been able to keep up with the pace of change of society




What does this all mean for the future of politics? Given this diversity a centralised nationally oriented party structure – on both left and right – is going to increasingly struggle to cope with this divergent world. The challenges include: that recruitment and candidate selection becomes more complex and needs to be locally sensitive. Social media engagement might have more of a grip in cosmopolitan rather than shrinking locations so it is unlikely to become a universal tool in the immediate future. Above all it is difficult to present the same face to shrinking and cosmopolitan populations; and it is far from clear how any party can bridge that divide of economic change and social outlook that will only increase in intensity as their experiences diverge and become locked in a self-reinforcing cycle of economic growth or stagnation and civic culture.

Will Jennings is professor of Political Science and Public Policy and director of the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance at the University of Southampton. Gerry Stoker is professor of Politics and Governance at the University of Southampton

A previous version of this article originally appeared on the Optimistic Patriot blog. Our full analysis is available to be read here.


Tags: Will Jennings , Gerry Stoker

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