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20 November 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:17am

Labour’s complacency lost it northern seats — the Tories must change to keep them

By David Skelton

When I grew up in Consett, in the North East of England, it was very much a Labour town. Memories of the closure of the steelworks and the social and economic devastation that followed were still raw and, as the author David Marquand observed, being Labour in places like Consett was as cultural as it was political. 

At the 1997 general election, Labour held the seat with a majority of 25,000 and almost 70 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives won a mere 15 per cent. If somebody had said then that, two decades later, Consett would go Tory, along with Sedgefield and Blyth Valley, you would probably have been checked for possession of mind-altering drugs. But Labour’s defeat in its once-solid heartlands has been on the cards for a long time and the party’s hierarchy and activists either chose to ignore it or to defy the factors behind it.

In the years since 1997, Labour forgot why places like Consett had once been such solid bastions. This didn’t start with Jeremy Corbyn, but, for many, his leadership crystallised their view of Labour as a hobbyist, middle-class party, devoid of genuine understanding of its working-class roots. Indeed, in 2013 I wrote in these pages that the “working-class vote is up for grabs” and that “as the Labour Party has become ‘lattefied’ its views have gradually moved out of sympathy with voters in working-class areas, on issues ranging from the EU to housing and crime and justice.” 

A poll by Lord Ashcroft in the same year showed that 86 per cent of Unite members supported the Conservatives’ benefit cap and that a majority supported Right to Buy. Voters looked at a party they once regarded as part of their identity and saw one that no longer shared their values or cared about their interests. The Labour leadership and party activists clearly decided that this divide didn’t matter or that hackneyed rants about “evil Tories” would be enough to convince a group of voters who Labour wrongly thought that they owned. Whereas the Labour Party was explicitly formed for the purpose of representing the urban working class in parliament and “promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour”, the modern Labour Party seemed disdainful of many of the views of working-class voters.

This was amply demonstrated in the month before the election when Corbynite outriders argued that the industrial working class were leading Labour down a “rabbit hole” or even tried to reframe the definition of working-class voters as a way of ignoring the concerns of the industrial working class. The middle class leadership caricatured and romanticised the working class. They saw the Durham Miners’ Gala as a Disneyland of working-class nostalgia, allowing them to prove their proletarian credibility. At the same time, they were ignoring and even belittling what working-class voters were actually saying. 

It was, above all, Brexit that signified the divide. Consett voted emphatically for Leave, as did many of the surrounding ex-coalfields and industrial towns. For many people in towns such as this, it was possibly the first time in their lives that their vote had made a real difference. After decades of economic and political marginalisation they were voting for real change. And they expected their vote to be implemented, not continually frustrated. The response of many Labour politicians was to argue that these voters didn’t understand the facts or that Brexit wasn’t really what they had voted for. A party that was founded to ensure that the views of the working class was represented has, for much of the past two years, looked like it was trying to use every trick in the book to frustrate the wishes of working class voters. A second Brexit referendum was regarded as a declaration by the Labour leadership that the voters had got it wrong the first time and needed to try again. 

This created the breach, but the break was consolidated by what Labour had become and by a misunderstanding of what the party represented in working class areas. As I set out in my recent book Little Platoons, the Labour tradition in many of the towns that turned their back on the party last week was fundamentally a “Labourist” or even a  “conservative” one. Indeed, a historian of Consett has observed that its politics at the steel industry’s height were quintessentially moderate, rather than left wing. It was a tradition that favoured the reform of capitalism in the interests of workers, but that was also staunchly patriotic and entrenched in community and place. Many of my friends from school in the town served in the armed forces and they, as well as their friends and family, were repulsed by Corbyn’s response to the Salisbury poisonings and his perceived sympathy with the IRA. 

Corbynism tried to impose its version of radical leftism on its mythical version of the working class in a town that was never radical or leftist — something that was replicated in towns across the country. In many ways, the late Labour MP Ernest Armstrong, and his daughter Hilary (who succeed him in 1987) embodied the moderate traditions of the town’s politics. Symbolically, she was expelled as a party member by the Corbynites for criticising Corbyn over anti-Semitism, shortly before the town’s voters delivered a raspberry to the politics of the hard left.

Labour treated former industrial areas as its fiefdoms for too long. The phrase “taken for granted” is used so often and heard so often because it is true. Now the habit of voting Labour is broken in many post-industrial places there is no certainty that voters will return to type. Indeed, if Labour double down on the left politics of the urban bourgeoisie, many more working-class constituencies will come into play. Doncaster, Sunderland, Walsall and Barnsley contain seats that Labour held on to by its fingernails. 

The North East will benefit from the fact that its politics are now competitive. A long-ignored region will now get more political attention and that can only be a good thing. Many people who would not have considered voting Tory until 2016 delivered an electoral earthquake in the North East last week.

If the Tories want to retain their coalfield and steeltown seats, rather than merely holding them on “loan”, they have to use the next five years to deliver real and transformative change. Transport infrastructure, including road, rail and light rail, should be directed towards these towns. There should be a mission to reindustrialise parts of the north with a strong manufacturing heritage, with an emphasis on encouraging industrial investment in long-forgotten towns. A vocational education revolution should include basing vocational centres of excellence, in partnership with major employers, in these towns. A fundamental priority for the government should be to turn round decades of decline. 

December 2019 will be remembered as a transformative election. Labour have suffered a historic defeat through a drift to hipster liberalism that failed to take seriously the concerns of what was once their core vote. The Tories broke through the “red wall” because they understood this and started a shift away from one-dimensional economic liberalism. If the government uses the next five years to improve the quality of life for working-class voters then this realignment could become a permanent one.

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nationa can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map 

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