Labour is in opposition. Pollsters are warning the party of an irreconcilable cultural divide in its voter base. MPs and shadow ministers are urging their leader to pay attention to the “rugby league towns”, and “metropolitan liberal elite” is becoming a ubiquitous insult. A key frontbench figure loses his west Yorkshire marginal due to a double-digit surge of a fringe anti-European party.
Well, all of that happened before the EU referendum had even been called, and while Jeremy Corbyn was still a backbencher.
In 2013, Ukip’s rise meant Ed Miliband’s problem was soon characterised as one of uniting the “beer drinkers” and “wine drinkers” that made up Labour’s diverse coalition. Appealing to “Hull and Hampstead” was the clichéd call-to-arms back then. Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy warned me that year that the “Labour Party isn’t just the metropolitan liberal elite party. It can’t just be the party of Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill”. Others followed suit with similar critiques.
Ukip had come second in the Eastleigh by-election in 2013, with Labour dropping to fourth – a place previously reserved for Nigel Farage’s then party. Further strong by-election performances for Ukip ensued in the northern Labour seats of South Shields and Heywood & Middleton the following year. In 2014’s Rochester & Strood by-election, the incumbent Tory defector won the seat for Ukip. Shadow minister Emily Thornberry’s tweet of a white van in a driveway in Strood bedecked with a St George’s cross was said to symbolise Labour’s detachment from the working man.
Then Labour frontbencher Jamie Reed urged Ed Miliband to focus Labour’s efforts on the “rugby league towns” and “lower-league football cities” in 2014, to avoid disconnecting from a “forgotten England”.
Former Labour MP Simon Danczuk told this magazine just before the 2015 election that his party’s leadership was detached from “Rochdale, Rotherham, Runcorn or anywhere else beginning with an ‘r’ outside the M25” (including literal Rugby).
Ed Balls lost his marginal west Yorkshire seat of Morley & Outwood in the 2015 general election thanks in part to a 13-point swing to Ukip.
This goes to show that Labour’s divided electoral coalition, and slippage in certain areas, was already a concern before its Brexit dilemma. A fascination with “Workington Man” and the “rugby league towns” already existed.
So it’s too easy – and perhaps too comforting – to assume that if Labour simply changed its leader then it would go back to winning elections. Jeremy Corbyn may have contributed significantly to the party’s mega-defeat this election, but those demographic splits were already there, as was the vacuum of solutions.
Even the “Scotpocalypse” of 2015 has been repeated this time around, alongside a more dramatic loss of English and Welsh seats Labour had considered its “heartlands” than in recent elections.
Yet those constituencies have been changing, and it’s too simplistic to assume they just vote differently because of Brexit, or the Labour leadership. For example, in North West Durham – the seat Labour rising star Laura Pidcock lost – the main town of Consett (a former steel town) is mainly a commuter town for Durham and Newcastle now. Hartlepool, the biggest Leave-voting seat in the northeast, was held by Labour and is home to the prestigious Northern School of Art, with a new campus opening two years ago.
To understand what’s happening, we need to look back further than Corbyn’s election and the referendum result, and stop preserving Britain as a patchwork of stereotypical “heartlands” in our minds.