A Labour Landslide in the North? Don’t Bank On It

Disillusionment is poisonous.

by Craig Gent

5 February 2024

Keir Starmer following Labour’s by-election victory in Wakefield, June 2022. Phil Noble/Reuters

Labour’s intention of making itself as small a target for the Tories as possible in this year’s likely general election will result in a slim and “bombproof” manifesto, according to the Observer. There’s a clear logic to Labour’s refusal to underestimate the Conservatives’ ability to narrow the polls, especially if the party wishes to avoid a 1992-style disaster

Yet closer examination of the balance of probability should temper enthusiasm for Starmer’s softly-softly approach. For one thing, polls showing a 1997-style lead for Labour – and the projections based on them – are driven by those who voted Tory in 2019 and are currently responding ‘don’t know’ to pollsters. There’s no guarantee these voters will either stay home on polling day or vote against the government. 

The bigger issue, however, is that it’s unclear who Labour is convincing. 

Take the decisive voters from 2019 and consider their journey. It was never evident that any significant number of Brexit voters felt their referendum vote was misplaced. Nor is it clear that former Labour voters in deindustrialised parts of northern England believe voting for Boris Johnson was a mistake. Although partygate pissed people off across the board, questions of Johnson’s fitness for office were always the fascination of lobby journalists above all. Will Labour voters who stayed home in 2019 turn out for the party this time? It’s a gamble.

The hope seems to be that Labour can look past long-term trends through the shallow-focus lens of electoral arithmetic. But 2019 wasn’t the aberration for Labour; it was the swings it achieved in 2017 that seemed to signal a momentary reverse in a 20-year story of decline. Labour now hopes to win power by capitalising on the demise of the SNP in Scotland, or even gunning for the more novel prospect of battering against the Tories’ so-called (if fanciful) ‘blue wall’ in southern England.

All of this is important for the north of England less because of what happens on election night, whenever it comes, than what happens after it – whatever the result – once the Westminster correspondents have gone home.

Almost two in every five children live in poverty in the north-east. Productivity in Yorkshire and the Humber is the second-lowest in Britain, after Wales. Former mining and port towns reap the crap-jobs legacy of deindustrialisation. These stories are so widely known that they’ve ceased to be news. The widely-heralded creation of yet more combined authorities may end up standing for little as long as devolution continues to be a mechanism for central government to absolve itself of responsibility for threadbare services and local authorities teeter on bankruptcy.

It’s in this context that we should look out for two implied narratives about northern England in the coming election, each completely overlooking the problems faced by the people who live here. 

In one narrative, the next election ought to see the north fall back into line behind Labour, ushering in a new era of triangulation in southern and midlands marginals whilst northern working-class voters have “nowhere else to go” (Mandelson, 1999), returning the north to its natural state in Westminster politics.

In the other narrative, the north continues to be relegated to some imagined culture-wars backwater, forever hewing to the next reactionary cause after Full Brexit. Labour’s decision to swerve this conversation is risky and cedes the narrative to Reform UK in areas where it’s often polling second. Announcing his candidacy for the former Brexit party in Rochdale, disgraced former Labour MP Simon Danczuk accused Labour of having gone from “work to woke”. It’s a line fellow Rochdale hopeful George Galloway will be only too pleased to indulge, and Tory MPs of the 2019 cohort have signalled loud and clear that it’s terrain on which they hope to convince their voters to turn out again.

We might think the right’s culture wars policy book, such as it is, is naturally limited by being one-note and inherently less appealing than the objective-focused messaging that dominated the 2019 election. Certainly one of its target constituencies is those least likely to vote. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of division and negative solidarity. The fact is that the 2024 election will be the first in a generation in which it may feel to many as though there’s nothing positive to vote for. Labour is already managing expectations on tax-and-spend, and few people seriously expect their wages to go up, rent to go down, shopping to get cheaper or mortgage prospects to get more attractive within the next parliament. And that’s the outlook if the Tories do get dumped out of Downing Street.

In that context, if Starmer really does want a decade of national renewal, then it’s striking that Labour isn’t doing any groundwork on issues aside from the economy in the north, whose echo will be heard long after polling day. Instead, despite all signs pointing to another election decided by who stays at home, Starmer risks alienating Muslim voters in the north over Palestine, and seems content to wager that more Tory than Labour voters will forgo the ballot box despite the right’s sabre-rattling on culture.

2019 should have been conclusive proof that disillusionment is poisonous to Labour in the north. I don’t care what the polls say: until we can answer the question of who Labour is convincing, all bets are off.

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

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