How Labour lost coal country

Labour’s ties with its working-class base have been under serious strain for some time.

Rakib Ehsan

Topics Brexit Politics UK

The 2019 General Election will go down as one of the most dramatic in postwar history.

Shattering Labour’s ‘red wall’ of safe seats in working-class towns in the Midlands and the north, Boris Johnson has led the Conservatives to its largest parliamentary majority since 1987. Remarkably, the Tories can now ‘blockbuster’ an uninterrupted stream of blue seats beginning from Redcar in north-east England, all the way across to Clwyd South in north Wales. Labour, delivering its worst General Election performance in the postwar era, now finds itself well behind the Tories in a raft of former coal-mining constituencies. We have witnessed a dramatic realignment of our politics.

As I have previously argued on spiked, Labour’s fudging of Brexit, its obsession with open-borders cosmopolitanism and its risky indulgence in racial identity politics has been straining its ties with many traditional working-class voters in the provinces for some time.

The warning signs were there. In the local council elections back in May, Labour lost overall control of councils in places such as Burnley, Darlington, Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Bolsover. In the European elections, Labour performed poorly in places which delivered high Leave votes in the EU referendum – finishing well behind the Brexit Party.

What was Labour’s reaction? During the party conference in September, a motion was passed to radically extend a raft of social and political rights, including the allocation of voting rights to all those with UK residency – irrespective of national citizenship. Leader Jeremy Corbyn also pledged to support a ‘great deal of movement’ under a future post-Brexit Labour government. Until election day, the Labour leader maintained a bizarre position of ‘neutrality’ on Brexit – the most important issue of our time.

Labour paid a devastating price. Post-industrial Labour ‘citadels’ such as Blyth Valley in the north east, Leigh in Greater Manchester and Wrexham in Wales returned Conservative MPs for the first time in generations. In Bassetlaw – a former coalfield territory in provincial Nottinghamshire, previously held by Labour’s John Mann – Labour suffered a spectacular drop in its vote share of nearly 25 percentage points. The Conservative Party now has a large majority of more than 14,000 votes in the seat.

County Durham was also a nightmare for Labour. Bishop Auckland returned a Conservative MP for the first time in its history – with 25-year-old Dehenna Davison winning a majority of nearly 8,000 votes. In the 1997 Labour landslide victory, Tony Blair won 71.2 per cent of the vote in his Sedgefield constituency – but in this election, it was one of many sensational Conservative gains. Corbynite ‘rising star’ Laura Pidcock – who once remarked that she would struggle to be friends with a Tory voter – lost her seat of Durham North West to the Conservatives.

To top it all off, ‘Beast of Bolsover’ Dennis Skinner ended his 49 years as MP for Bolsover, a constituency which lies at the heart of Derbyshire coal country. Skinner – a former coalminer and a left-wing Eurosceptic firebrand – suffered a humiliating loss to the Tories.

Jeremy Corbyn’s concession speech following such a catastrophic result was telling. Professing his love for the constituency that elected him for the tenth consecutive occasion, he expressed regret that he was not able to campaign more in Islington North. Quite understandable – his politics may go down a treat in chattering-class Islington, but it clearly went down like a lead balloon in working-class Brexitland.

The reality is this: other parties wanted the votes of habitually Labour-voting, pro-Brexit voters more than their own natural party did. Some of these voters will have stayed at home, but a good number will have given their vote to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and, remarkably, to the Conservatives. The modern Labour Party is no longer the party of traditional blue-collar voters. It is a party which loses seats like Blyth Valley to the Tories and gains seats from them in places like Putney in west London. The Conservatives took a huge gamble by focusing their energy on traditionally Labour-voting Brexit territory, but the rewards have been monumental.

Are we on the verge of a fundamental shift within the Tory party? The Brexit-leaning deindustrialised provinces – many of whom opposed the Conservatives’ programme of austerity – have returned a raft of new Conservative MPs to the Commons. The parliamentary party is now decidedly more northern and working-class. Many of its new blue-collar voters are still anxious about the inequalities produced by market capitalism and want a more interventionist economic model.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has thanked ‘first-time Tory voters’ for providing him with the solid parliamentary majority he needed to move on with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. If the PM and his party are serious about building this relationship with voters in working-class, Leave-voting ‘coal country’, it must become a ‘Red Tory’ administration. A government which blends a sensible social-democratic programme of well-funded public services and comprehensive state investment in technical education, with a conservative approach to cultural matters, which includes the introduction of a points-based immigration system and tougher sentences for criminals. As well as funding infrastructure projects designed to boost connectivity within regions, it must also restore robust ‘on-the-beat’ neighbourhood policing. A self-governing, economically social-democratic, socially conservative UK, characterised by a dynamic ‘red-blue’ politics rooted in a public desire for security and belonging, would be a winning formula.

Johnson has a golden chance to embed Conservative support in habitually Labour-voting coal country. Whether he will grasp the opportunity remains to be seen.

Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Follow him on Twitter: @rakibehsan.

Picture by: Getty

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Michael Lynch

16th December 2019 at 8:22 pm

If Labour elect don’t elect Nandy, the only credible candidate, then they are finished. It won’t just take two terms to resuscitate the Party to a credible force, it’ll take decades.

Raymon Coker

16th December 2019 at 11:48 pm

Agreed. I think that non-momentum Labour MPs should split and form a new party. They have nothing lose as momentum will not relinquish their control of the party apparatus.

steve moxon

17th December 2019 at 10:31 am

Well she’s cute. But wanting to cuddle her and take her home is not exactly what you’re looking for in a leader!

Ven Oods

17th December 2019 at 4:53 pm

And yet, that’s what Boris’s new ‘bidie-in’ seems to have done (now they’ve stopped barneying about the laptop).

Matt Ryan

16th December 2019 at 6:10 pm

The biggest mistake the Tory party can make now is a lurch further Left. The UK is socially conservative – they want the Conservative party is help commerce and small business and reduce the money taken by menaces by the government and wasted by the Metropolitan classes who infest the civil service and quangos.

jan mozelewski

16th December 2019 at 8:38 pm

The working class voters who turned to the Tories have always been conservative with a small c. I think the best think Boris can do is embrace the whole old-Etonian ‘fair-play’ motif to the utmost. And give the people what they really crave…peace and stability.

In Negative

16th December 2019 at 5:46 pm

I heard a story the other day that when one of the “red wall” seats went unexpectedly blue, the wife of the Tory victor left the room in tears. I do hope this is true! Every night now, I lie awake in the dark and listen just in the hope I can hear relocated Tory wives a-weeping.

We remained Red incidentally, so I have to listen really hard.

jan mozelewski

16th December 2019 at 9:09 pm

That may have been more true in the past…but now I suspect Labour is the more elitist…or at least as likely to be elitist and snobby. In Stoke, one of the newly elected Tories is a twenty-something raised in a local council house. Labour parachuted in a momentum plonker from London. And of course we now have more female MP’s than ever so maybe it is the husbands that are weeping too.

In Negative

16th December 2019 at 10:57 pm

Tory men don’t weep – what rubbish.

And nor would I approve of it if they did. I don’t want that keeping me up all night!

In Negative

16th December 2019 at 11:17 pm

More seriously (not that I’m not serious about my revulsion at the Idea of hearing Tory husbands keeping me up all night with their weeping) I wonder what it means that guys like Geoff Norcott have jumped in with the Conservatives? These council estate kids whose families were housed by Labour and yet have no social attachment to Labour. We can probably blame Blair and his mates for that more than you can blame Corbyn and the Momentum crowd.

Another factor is that the Tory party today is mostly the party of Libertarianism. These working class tories, I’d suggest, are born of hyper-individualism in similar ways to your Momentum middle class. I don’t think they are Conservative in the Scrutton/Burke/Hitchens sense. They are something more Thatcherite and somewhere overlap with your Sargons and gamergate anti-PC crowd. They are made of screens and sex and coke, though they pretend to have some kind of Conservative veneer – for historical and cultural reasons.

In short, the Tories are no more the Tories than Labour are still Labour. I just need a better idea of who all these people actually are.

Them new Tories are a pretty featureless looking lot mind – they have that in common with their previous iteration.

Ven Oods

17th December 2019 at 4:46 pm

“Tory men don’t weep – what rubbish.”
Not even crocodile tears?

James Knight

16th December 2019 at 5:04 pm

The attorney general Geoffrey Cox may be the hammiest sounding speaker in parliament. But it turned out he was right when he warned “the time is coming when even these Turkeys will not be able to prevent Christmas.”

steve moxon

16th December 2019 at 4:54 pm

Not just coal country, but steel country too.
I live in the Penistone & Stocksbridge constituency, that like the Don Valley, Rother Valley and Scunthoroipe — steel areas (still) — all went from red to blue.
This has been a long time developing. The allegiance to Labour has been historical; inertia.
People round here are ‘somewheres’; not ‘anywheres’ (David Goodhart’s classification). Naturally economically redistributive and socially local cohesive. These are the values that old (really old) Labour once had but now only the Conservatives hold.
But it’s far more than this: people here know Labour don’t like us for not buying their project, and uses ‘PC’ to express this, where anybody but ‘the workers’ of old — ordinary people — are held in esteem. We just await the next tiny faux sub-group they dream up of the supposedly disadvantaged supposedly caused by us.
Labour’s anti-Brexit is a symptom of all of all this together, but when Brexit has happened and politics have moved on, people round here won’t move back to Labour.
What Labour thinks of us, we throw back at Labour.

In Negative

16th December 2019 at 5:48 pm

I love that we have a Penis Town.

jan mozelewski

16th December 2019 at 8:57 pm

Over here in France we have a town called Condom. It would be immense if they were twinned….

In Negative

16th December 2019 at 11:23 pm

That would be wonderful!

steve moxon

17th December 2019 at 10:34 am

Curiously, throughout the time I was at Penistone Grammar School nobody joked about it. It seems that with lifelong familiarity with the placename it never occurred to anybody that the stem is ‘penis’ — though maybe it’s more to do with the non-use of proper terminology: nobody round here refers to a penis as a penis!

steve moxon

17th December 2019 at 10:49 am

Well Jan, we prefer going unsheathed round ‘ere!

Ven Oods

17th December 2019 at 4:50 pm

Penistone could describe an accident in a tanning salon.
But then, there are many placenames in the UK that receive a ‘fnaar fnaar’ response from the more sophisticated.

Jim Lawrie

16th December 2019 at 8:13 pm

“people round here won’t move back to Labour.” I’m interested in why you say that.

jan mozelewski

16th December 2019 at 9:03 pm

As I see it, since last Thursday all the Labour Party have done is blame everyone but themselves and insult their erstwhile voters. Not the kind of strategy likely to bridge gaps and heal wounds after a break-up. Not conciliatory or at least sharing the blame for the parting that could lead to a reunion. Nope. They have been further widening the rift ever since it happened. And that, of course, invariably leads to a messy divorce.

steve moxon

17th December 2019 at 10:46 am

Because it’s like a dam that has burst. Pressure has been building for decades, and now the ‘habit’ has been broken — or, for those still habitual Liebore voters, they now see the habit has been broken in those around them, given them too ‘permission’ to follow suit in future. The ‘Labour donkey’ no longer has any basis. It would have to be re-established all over again, and this is not going to happen now that tribal political loyalty has evaporated, with the ‘red wall’ being the last bastion of it in England. A very strong positive reason would be needed to opt again for Liebore, and all of the strong reasons are and look as though they will remain to opt for anything but Liebore. Furthermore, this is going to grow massively with the inevitable implosion of ‘identity politics’ and it’s ‘PC’ enforcement, which will reveal the basis of why it is that Liebore (in particular) hates us all, and the hate we will give back to Liebore will multiply. [‘Identity politic’ is Left backlash for us refusing to ‘rise up’: substitution faux ‘groups’ to replace ‘the workers; as the supposed ‘revolutionary vanguard’.]

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