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30 Jun 2021

Politics and Society

Our #AcademicintheSpotlight series, which promotes academics who produce original, thought provoking work on the UK’s changing relationship with the EU.

Dr Lawrence McKay is a Research Fellow for TrustGov, an ESRC-funded project which explores political trust around the world – its causes, consequences and patterns.

What are you currently researching?

My research (currently based in the TrustGov project) is all about the geography of political trust. In particular, I tackle issues including the urban-rural divide in trust, how spatial inequalities affect trust and how place-based policies and representation can reduce distrust.

Among developed countries, the UK in particular has large and growing inequalities between places and my research finds that this is linked to different outlooks towards politics. However, as my current projects suggest, the story is far from simple; people do not always perceive things the way local economic indicators would suggest and they do not only care about the economy but status and identity too. Also, politicians can reframe these anti-political reactions to their benefit (as discussed in my co-authored work on the levelling-up agenda).

My intention in the medium term is to take this research in a comparative direction. I have work-in-progress on urban-rural divides which challenge the general assumption that rural means low trust, and will shortly be fielding comparative surveys with TrustGov that will allow an in-depth look at which places feel ‘left-behind’ in different contexts.

What led you to research this topic?

I started my PhD in late 2016 (without much of a plan) but quickly found something I was passionate about exploring. We’d just seen the Brexit vote and Trump’s election and there was lots of talk about the ‘geography of discontent’ with established politics. But the commentary, interesting as it was, had got well ahead of the data and there was actually very little on ‘place’ and attitudes to politics.

I realised there was a fantastic opportunity to leverage survey data such as the British Election Study to answer some of those questions. That led to my first paper on ‘left-behind places’ and to a variety of bits and pieces on regional divides, which started getting some attention in the right places.

After a rough old few months in the job market around the first lockdown, I eventually got offered what was virtually my dream postdoc with Will Jennings, Gerry Stoker and the TrustGov team at Southampton. That opened some great research opportunities – doing bigger and better things including comparative studies, finding a domestic policy audience with a paper on levelling up, plus I could finally design the survey questions I’d been fantasising throughout my PhD!

What impact, if any, have changes in British politics and society over the last decade had on your area of research?

A huge impact! First Brexit, then the fall of the ‘Red Wall’ have really catalysed interest. There’s now a vibrant research community engaging in these questions, including economists and sociologists, and I feel like most weeks there is some fascinating new insight. I’ve also noticed calls from research funders referring to geography alongside other aspects of division or inequality.

As the ideas and language of the analysis gain mainstream currency, there is more opportunity to put your research in front of the media, think tanks or even political parties. However, there is also more pushback as well – such as people asking what ‘left-behind’ really means – that is pushing us to do more precise and more critical work.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as an academic? 

As for the best, I think it’s the old one about ‘we’re all clever here, just try to be kind’. Academic culture can seem rather cut-throat and the temptation can be to lean into that, particularly when you are given any sort of power over others like being a reviewer. But actually the real thrust of the community is towards a kinder, gentler and more inclusive academia, where people look out for each other. You can see that reflected in organisations like the Political Studies Early Career Network (which I’ve been very lucky to have had a leadership role for the last two years).

And the worst?

The worst would be ‘network like crazy at conferences’. Well-meaning, but puts too much pressure on an out-of-the-blue interaction where you can too often come off as awkward or worse – cynical. Indeed, networking happens in all sorts of places where it can be much more manageable and less intimidating, especially for ‘digital natives’ of my generation. Dr. Liam McLoughlin (an ECN colleague) recently wrote a wonderful piece about this.

If there was one bit of social science research you would encourage people to read, what would it be?

Kathy J. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment. Before the wider field caught on she identifies how powerful resentment of urban liberal ‘elites’ built up in rural America. The book landed in mid-2016 and after November took on another life as ‘the book that explains Trump’ – and certainly there are some important insights about the source of his appeal in rural communities. But in some ways that sells it short as there are much broader insights. One is how relatively trivial physical distances and barriers can create a real sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Another, which is particularly valuable being a political news junkie myself, is that these voters were relatively tuned out – their perspective wasn’t coming from Fox or CNN but from the ‘deep story’ they were telling to each other.

I would be fascinated to see Cramer revisit it today – as Biden attempts to soothe these divides and Trump inflames them – and I’m interested in my own work in tracking this divide over time and across countries.

By Dr Lawrence McKay, Research Fellow for TrustGov, an ESRC-funded project which explores political trust around the world.

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