Learning the Lessons of Labour’s Northern Nightmare Will Take Longer Than a Weekend

by Craig Gent

17 December 2019

dgeezer /Flickr

In moments like this, everyone has to have a take. The unrelenting tempo of social media feeds won’t allow otherwise.

Of course, people are more than entitled to air their reflections and opinions about what went wrong, how we got here, and how the disparity between hope and reality got so wide. But it is galling to see people who were sideswiped by the result – who had largely written off the crumbling of Labour’s ‘red wall’ as a myth – now speaking in authoritative tones about how shit really went down, as explained by this one handy graph.

The bare facts are these: Labour’s election campaign did not look the same across northern towns as it did on left Twitter. Swathes of towns that said they wanted Brexit in 2016 still want Brexit. Those towns by and large felt patronised by the offer of a second referendum, a policy whose public support has always been inflated by the gaseous outpourings of its most ardent supporters. And two years on from 2017, the novelty of Corbynmania had thoroughly worn off, with his increasingly stage-managed media appearances beginning to rub people up the wrong way.

Naturally, people are now rushing to say why the result confirms their long-held suspicions that X needs to happen. Chief among delusionists within this deluge are the centrists whose core contribution over the last two years was the very policy that proved Labour’s undoing. I am not a habitual lexiter, but the idea that the second referendum offer had nothing to do with the result is completely detached from reality. More still is the idea that Labour could have won by backing an outright remain position sooner. To understand this election, context is everything, and I’m afraid those who conveniently point to data sets comparing 2017 and 2019 as proof that they were right all along are lacking it in spades.

The decisive blow for Labour in this election was dealt in constituencies across the north of England which in many cases had reliably returned Labour MPs for decades. But let’s stop calling them ‘traditional working class’ towns, as if other more multi-ethnic towns and cities don’t rely on heavy industry or manufacturing jobs. And let’s also stop calling them Labour’s ‘heartlands’ – a term, like ‘the north’, which is relied on by people who could not point to a northern town smaller than Newcastle on a map, and which imagines a level of reciprocity which has not been present for years.

The bulk of these towns constitute what should be more appropriately termed England’s mining belt. They lived and breathed both the miners’ strike in the 1980s and its long defeat through the 1990s, during which New Labour built an electoral strategy upon the assumption that voters there, as in other former industrial hubs across the UK, had “nowhere else to go”. This strategy was, of course, temporarily successful, but it stitched into the fabric of New Labour’s approach the logic that the mining belt would no longer be an actual organising base, but instead kept sweet by the drip of trickle-down social democracy.

That might work in power, but since the global financial crisis and following a decade of austerity, Labour’s foothold in the mining belt has only become weaker. Over time, northern Labour councils have come to be viewed as the establishment, their attempts to stave off the worst effects of austerity communicated poorly to the electorate, while strategists in London no doubt mistook a splash of red on a map for enthusiasm instead of waning support for a long-established default. Yet since Brexit, the writing has been on the wall – if only London-centrists had looked up. Rightly or wrongly, Brexit offered enough people an antidote to years of feeling defeated and defeatist – the experience of finally winning something. Labour’s prevarication since the 2017 election left many people feeling ‘let down by Labour’ – a sentiment which propelled a number of independents and right-wingers into local councils, and which propelled the Brexit party to first place in the European elections.

Let’s be real – these signals were written off as a protest vote, or likely to be statistically insignificant come a general election. Doing so was a failure to recognise the political journey many former Labour voters were on. While the Conservatives and Brexit party fanned the confidence delivered by winning the referendum for their own cynical purposes, Labour became the party of ‘steady on’, asking leave voters to gamble their sacred victory in order to appease a bunch of hard remainers who never accepted that they lost, and worse yet, appeared to think their votes ought to have been worth more than the votes of leavers.

One reason the situation now feels so horrible to Labour supporters is that in entertaining the entirely patronising prospect of a ‘route to remain’, the party has ceded the entire project of Brexit in all its possible forms to the right. While at the time of the referendum there was at least a recognition that people voted to leave for a range of different reasons, the continual preference for “clever wheezes to prevent Britain from leaving the European Union”, as Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis put it to me, fanned mistrust and disillusionment in the Labour party and its leader, whose eventual decision to remain neutral was, rightly or wrongly, read as an insincere calculation rather than a genuine gesture towards national unity.

One does not have to go full lexit to see what the alternative could have looked like. Leave the European Union, while making a practical case for membership of the customs union and at long last stepping up to an ideological battle on immigration to either win the argument to stay in the single market or strive for a similar arrangement afterwards. It would not have been easy or straightforward, but with the Brexit vote itself ambiguous, no one could have accused Labour of not ‘respecting the referendum’ had it at least committed properly to leaving the political union.

There was also an argument to be won with remainers, as evidenced by the now-familiar cry that backing Brexit would have just lost votes to the Liberal Democrats. Remain lost the referendum. Remainers – they, we – lost. Most people who voted as such accept this, and it was a mistake to imagine that the need to keep remainers onside was the same as keeping remain itself alive as an option. The pressure to do so came not from the actual threat of remainers deserting the party in any serious way – as the 2017 election showed – but from the sections of Labour that are either ideologically not so distant from the Lib Dems or possess such a paternalistic attitude to voters that they were simply unwilling to accept that people knew what they wanted.

Worse still, Labour did possess the tools to carve out a position for itself within the Brexit context. It briefly looked possible that it would dovetail with Labour’s promise to ‘rebuild Britain’ following years of austerity, playing to the party’s own strong claim to historical credibility in that area. The party political broadcast ‘Our Town’ (below) suggested as much, trumping nativism with localism as part of a broader programme of rebuilding confidence and civic pride. The World Transformed was also ahead of the curve in this area, with its early attempt to wrestle back the meaning of ‘take back control’ for the left. Such visions were absent from the most recent election campaign.

In an article published on Novara Media a few days before the election, I said that disillusionment is Labour’s biggest enemy in the north’s leave-voting seats. That still holds, and Labour should not be comforted by the seats it has managed to retain, which have generally suffered enormous swings towards the pro-Brexit parties (Barnsley Central, a fortunate Labour hold, suffered a -23.8% swing to the benefit of the Brexit party, which came second with 30.4% of the vote). Labour’s task will now be to rebuild broken trust and raise the confidence of towns where Labour voters either swung blue for the first time, or simply weren’t convinced enough to go and vote.

We all know this government is not about to lift a decade of austerity and 40 years of neoliberalism off the mining belt. As he has promised, Boris Johnson will no doubt throw in some bonuses for those who have lent him their vote. If we’re serious about rebuilding Britain then we know the general direction of Labour’s economic policies since 2017 are the right ones, but both Labour and groups like Momentum are going to need to think very hard about how and where they organise if they are going to win the argument at the ballot box.

This election is surely the definitive confirmation that having a giant membership does not automatically make a party more grassroots. Momentum has shown itself to be very effective at mobilising members to campaign in key marginals on the outskirts of the largest cities – indeed far more effective than Labour HQ itself – but roots have to be grown in a place, and place matters. No, the working class is not confined to predominantly white northern towns, as some commentators would have it, but equally there must be some recognition that towns are not cities, and the grassroots cannot be coordinated from London.

It is an unfortunate fact that Corbynism never overcame the principle of electoral triangulation most commonly associated with Blairism. While fighting a ground-game which focuses on marginals makes sense in terms of sheer logistical pragmatism, it treats ‘safe’ seats as monoliths which can quickly be counted and banked before moving on to more lucrative pastures. There needs to be a recognition that this is not politically sound beyond the short-term, not least because it means the places marked ‘safe’ – and the people who live there – go unattended for decades at a time. Like the unexamined CDOs that led to the financial crisis, Labour has for too long gestured towards its ‘red wall’ somewhere up the motorway without ever really checking on the bricks.

Most crucial in the coming period will be the resources and guidance given to both constituency parties and the community organising team. The two need to be working in tandem across the country, each willing to eat their share of humble pie, though leaving most to the party’s central strategists. At a local level, the party should first make sure that it is undertaking community work for no calculated gain – a sign that Labour is not going anywhere and cares about the community whether it is representing the constituency in parliament or not. Soon after, Labour activists should be trusted and supported to build institutions that materially support people where they are, over a period of time which is about to get much harder for many in society – breakfast clubs for kids, activity groups for disabled people, family days for single parents, advice surgeries for benefits claimants. Every member should be involved in this work in some way; community organising is not a spectator sport and there can be no shortcuts.

All wings of Labour need to recognise that the ground has shifted beneath its feet, and the old calculations do not hold. Centrists will no doubt point to their run of good fortune two decades ago, yet their strategic gambles gave rise to the mistrust that is now laid bare and their most unifying idea of the last two years was the final straw. Likewise those around Corbyn will have to admit that they tried to be too clever on Brexit and squandered the trajectory of 2017 rather than building on it. Now it is time to focus on what the labour movement is supposed to do best – organising to improve the lives of ordinary people all over the country, not out of calculation but because it’s the right thing to do. Only then will people start ‘coming home’ to Labour, and both Labour and the communities it wants to represent will be all the stronger for it.

Craig Gent is Novara Media’s north of England editor and the author of Cyberboss (2024, Verso Books).


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