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6 September 2019updated 03 Sep 2021 11:48am

It’s the towns, stupid: How Labour plans to win the next election

The party’s institutional firepower is focussed on winning back places where it’s seen as more quinoa than bingo. 

By Patrick Maguire

John McDonnell is going on tour. Or, as he puts it: “The Road to Rebuilding the Economy.”

The shadow chancellor spent Sunday in Broxtowe, where Anna Soubry is defending a slender majority of 863. Earlier in the summer he was in Hastings, where Labour is just 346 votes behind Amber Rudd. He is to make similar visits, preaching Labour’s economic gospel, every fortnight until the next general election.

Stops next month include Pudsey, a West Yorkshire seat with a Conservative majority of 331, and Mansfield, which was lost to the Tories for the first time in 2017 is something of a ground zero for Corbynism’s appeal – or lack thereof – in Labour’s post-industrial heartlands.

The seats are all of a one. Those in England are all held by the Tories and they are almost all towns (in Scotland, Labour is mostly challenging the SNP in its target seats). McDonnell describes it thus:

“Different areas have had different experiences over the last two generations and after a successful launch of Labour’s Road to Rebuilding the Economy tour in Hastings, we are now taking our campaign to Broxtowe in the East Midlands.

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“Towns in the Midlands, north and on the coast have lost their traditional industries. Nothing has filled that gap and they have been let down badly by the Tory government, which has inflicted eight years of austerity on these communities.

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“In Broxtowe and across the length and breadth of Britain, Labour will set out its plans to revive the economy and create jobs.”

McDonnell’s tour – spun last weekend as a means of relieving negative media attention on the party – underlines the extent to which the Labour leadership’s institutional and organisational firepower is now devoted to a very specific objective.

The party rules the great cities of England but struggles in towns, particularly coastal and post-industrial communities. Tory strategists believe with some justification that they are Corbyn’s achilles heel, and their lifebelt when faced with a red tidal wave at their next election. Most of them voted for Brexit. These are the places where Labour are seen as the party of quinoa and student protests. The party is now focussed on winning them back.

It’s a rare example of a common policy interest shared the leadership and Corbynsceptic MPs and some of the most interesting thinking on the left is happening on this very subject: Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, set up the Centre for Towns thinktank earlier this year.

I wrote last month on Jeremy Corbyn’s summer tour, which took him to factories and community organising events in towns across the North, Midlands and Scotland (and former industrial centres like Stoke, Mansfield and Walsall). Away from Westminster, Labour has hired dozens of community organisers, working from Hastings to Glasgow, to build membership and lead campaigns in the seats it needs to win.

To the consternation of its communications team, the anti-Semitism row meant Labour spent very little time talking about its Build It In Britain campaign and its desire to see well-paid jobs be created and remain in local communities. But that too is an extension of the same mission: winning back towns.

None of this is particularly new. Len McCluskey has urged the party to concentrate on such places. Corbyn’s second leadership campaign in 2016 explicitly focussed on communities such as these, which he later took to calling “left-behind Britain”. That particular turn of phrase has since fallen out of favour – though you still hear some people use variants privately – but the political context has changed: both Tory and Labour majorities were slashed drastically in 2017 and the next election will be a game of very fine margins.

The number of votes needed to change hands in these marginals for Labour to be able to form a minority government is not at all big. The party’s reckoning is that the time its people spend in these seats from now until the next election – be it by Corbyn, McDonnell, or its local activists – will be worth it, and will allow it to win the next election out of Westminster’s glare. The visits are not, as Corbyn’s detractors contend, exercises in cultism or self-congratulatory backslapping. Or at least they are not intended to be so.

Of course, Labour’s problem is that the Tories covet the same prize. Now it’s not so much the economy, stupid, but the towns that economy is providing with a raw deal.