The strange death of Labour England: The long story of why Labour lost the heartlands

In 2019, the Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, romped to their largest victory since 1987. However, this was an incredibly surprising result based on historic electoral patterns. The Tories, for the fourth election in a row, were the United Kingdom’s largest party, but more importantly, the governing party increased their vote share for the fourth consecutive election. No governing party has ever achieved this feat. 

The finger-pointing in the Labour Party culminated with last month’s report into the electoral failure. The General Election Review found that a variety of issues pushed Labour Leavers away from the party.  

The report claimed that Labour’s position was unparalleled because: 

‘The only other time an opposition party has lost so many seats to the incumbent was in 1983 when the Conservatives had been in power for four years. For a major party to fall this far behind after nine years in opposition – and four elections – is historically unprecedented.’

In fact, the report added that in order to win 326 seats and form Labour’s first majority since 2005, Keir Starmer would need to win 123 seats. This was achieved during 1997; however, this is unlikely to repeat itself because Labour would require a far greater swing than Tony Blair did in his first electoral victory. Labour would need to make gains in quintessentially English seats in rural corners of the country. Seats like North East Somerset, held by the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, would need to fall if Labour was to return 326 MPs without a resurgence in Scotland.

Nonetheless, the regional swing in England and the swing across specific English social classes in last December’s election make the chances of success in 2024 equally as unlikely. In the north-east, a bastion of socialism since its formation in the late Victorian period, Labour lost eight per cent of its vote share to principally the Tories or the Brexit Party.

Since 2015, Labour has cemented the youth vote. However, a Youthquake has yet to prove decisive in deciding an election. It is needless to say that this is also a problem to the Conservative Party who tend to do far better amongst the older population. But the problem for the Labour Party is epitomised in a quote falsely attributed to Winston Churchill that declared that ‘If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.’ There is clear historical evidence that the electorate tacts to the right once they age, work, and have a family. Labour also retains sizeable leads amongst the BME community and in the nation’s largest metropolitan cities.

What explains Labour’s defeat last December? The ongoing debate within Labour ranks tends to divide parliamentary members into two camps. 

The first, usually represented by the outgoing Corbyn faction, perceive Brexit as the primary reason behind the fall in support for the Labour Party. The Labour Party lost 54 seats to the Conservative Party last December. Fifty-two of these seats voted to Leave the European Union. Labour lost almost twice as many Leave voters as it did Remainers. Moreover, of the 1,000,000 new voters, they won in 2019, almost all of them supported the continued membership of the EU. Former party Chairman, Ian Lavery, is a clear proponent of such a prescription. On election night, Lavery told the BBC that “What we are seeing in the Labour heartlands is people very aggrieved at the fact the party basically has taken a stance on Brexit the way they have.” Lavery’s vote share collapsed in his Leave-voting seat in Wansbeck. In 2017, the former President of the National Union of Mineworkers had a majority of over 10,000; however, just two years later, this was reduced to 814. Lavery’s predecessor at the NUM, Arthur Scargill, agreed wholeheartedly with this sentiment. A Leaver himself, Scargill, now Leader of the Socialist Labour Party, called for Corbyn to unequivocally back Brexit and advised his supporters to not vote for any Remain candidates, socialist or not.

The second camp of politicians and journalists tend to represent the Blairite ascendancy that had engulfed the Labour Party in the aftermath of the Thatcher years. The group, whose cheerleader-in-chief was Blair’s former head of communications, Alistair Campbell, argue that the radicalism of Corbynism made the defeat last December all but inevitable. Alan Johnson, Home Secretary under Gordon Brown passionately argued for this case during ITV’s election coverage. The former postman claimed that ‘worse than useless’ Corbyn was the main factor behind Labour’s worst election defeat since 1931. Ian Murray, the now lone Labour MP in Scotland, added that: ‘Every door I knocked on, and my team and I spoke to 11,000 people, mentioned Corbyn. Not Brexit but Corbyn. I’ve been saying this for years. The outcome is that we’ve let the country down and we must change course and fast.’ Whilst politics north of Berwick does differ to England and Wales, many of Murray’s colleagues south of the border echoed these concerns. Most of those claiming such a thing supported the former Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer’s, successful leadership bid last Spring and were unwavering in their opposition to Brexit.

There is some merit to this. According to YouGov, thirty-five per cent of Labour defectors cited Corbyn’s leadership as the prime reason that drove them to vote for an alternative party. This may be because of the anti-Semitism that ran rife under his leadership or his connections with groups regarded as completely anti-British that would not be well received by patriotic voters in the heartlands. However, separate YouGov polls have added that an overwhelming majority of voters well supported Labour’s economic policies. In fact, over half of British voters supported the following proposals:

  • Increasing income tax on earnings over £123,000 from 45 to 50 per cent.
  • Increasing the rate of income tax on earnings over £80,000 from 40 to 45 per cent. 
  • Nationalising the railways.
  • Requiring all companies to give a third of the places on their company board to its workers.
  • A wealth tax.
  • Nationalising water companies. 

A Labour source told The Guardian’s election team that ‘It wasn’t that people didn’t like the policies, people thought there was too many of them. The free broadband was really unpopular. We hadn’t spent two years making the case for it and we just dumped it on them … so people thought “this is a weird luxury, why on earth are we being offered this?”‘

Nonetheless, there is a third answer to this divisive and fundamental question. This theory, championed by Matthew Goodwin, argues that the collapse of support for the Labour Party in the former industrial heartlands began in the early 2000s. During this time, a Tony Blair-led Labour Party moved to the centre of British politics, notably on the economy. However, this created a divide between the parliamentary party and the people that the party was established to represent. Subsequently, any sign of class-based voting that had not been eroded during the Thatcher years disintegrated last December. There is also a clear geographical difference. Labour has not won the popular vote in England since 2001, and Blair’s success in 2001 and 2005 came from the overwhelming support in both Wales and Scotland. However, with just one Westminster seat north of Berwick and a fall in support on the other side of the River Severn, Labour would need to claw back support in England for even the possibility of becoming the UK’s largest party.

It is precisely this long-term pattern that Labour must address and accept. They had been warned. As early as 2014, Matthew Goodwin and others told Ed Miliband’s team that the vehicles for change that came in the form of Farage-led parties were as much of a threat to Labour as they were to the Tories. Miliband ignored this, and in 2019 his majority in Doncaster North collapsed from over 14,000 to little over 2,000. 

In the shortest sense, between Corbyn’s relatively successful campaign in 2017 and Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019, Labour’s position in the heartlands was left vulnerable. May’s calamitous campaign partly paved the way for Johnson’s success. The University of Manchester’s Rob Ford analysed the eighteen Anglo-Welsh seats that Labour lost for the first time since 1945. In these seats, Theresa May had increased the Tory vote share by an average of 14 per cent. This enabled the Conservatives to make modest gains in vote share for them to take control.

However, it is essential to look even further back than this to a time when Labour was the most successful party in the United Kingdom and arguably in western Europe. The Blair years may be regarded as the wilderness years for the Conservative Party; however, without them, the road to redrawing the political landscape is more like a car park. 

On the surface, Tony Blair brought the Labour Party over a decade of political power, and for much of that period, unchallengeable levels of power. Underneath the tip of this electoral iceberg, many problems were emerging. This was evident in the collapse in turnout during these years. Labour’s pivot to power was forged by pandering to the centre-ground in seats like Rugby and Redditch. However, in doing so, Labour inadvertently neglected their traditional voters in Redcar and Rother Valley. Consequently, political participation plummeted. Turnout fell by 6.4 per cent in 1997, and by 2001 it fell by a further 11.9 per cent.

This collapse in confidence was even more profound in the red wall. This collapse crossed county boundaries. In Bassetlaw, Blyth Valley, Burrow and Furness, and Birmingham Northfield voter turnout fell by between ⅕ and ¼ of eligible voters. Even the minuscule increase in turnout during the 2005 general election was unable to overturn the downturn in political participation. It was also perceived that Tony Blair failed to address voters’ concerns over geographical inequalities and the only way voters could punish this was through mass abstentions. 

That said, some voters did begin to move towards the Conservative Party. An upturn in Tory votes almost mirrored the downturn in Labour votes. This was highlighted by Professor Rob Ford, who considered 2010 as the turning point. This is also why Labour have not won a majority of the popular vote in England since 2001. In a dozen seats, including Bolsover, Sedgefield and Walsall North, there was a swing of almost 25 per cent from Labour to the Tories between 2005 and 2019. Nevertheless, this was not significant enough to displace the party from their post-industrial heartlands.

Enter Nigel Farage.

Farage’s burst onto the political scene in 1999 when he was elected as UKIP’s first representative in Brussels. At that point, UKIP represented the views of dissenting Thatcherites in the English shires, an electorate that Nigel Farage continued to foster in EU Elections and the 2016 referendum. Nonetheless, as Matthew Goodwin warned Ed Miliband in 2014, UKIP was to threaten Labour with the disenfranchised voters flocking to the party. The following year, UKIP retained the bellwether constituency of Clacton but failed to win in the Kent seats of Rochester and Strood or Thanet South. Nonetheless, according to LSE, UKIP finished second in 44 Labour-held seats. By entering these seats, Farage presented himself as a representable opposition to Labour’s domination. In the 2016 referendum, 37 per cent of Miliband-backing voters opted to Leave the EU, but it is interesting to consider how many former Labour voters were already siding with UKIP. In the seat of Hartlepool, voter turnout fell to lows of 51.5 per cent in 2005. By comparison, the north-eastern town registered a turnout of 56.8 per cent in the 2015 general election, with UKIP eating away at Labour’s majority. By June 23rd 2016, 65.5 per cent of those in Hartlepool went to the polls. The lost voice mobilised for one cause.

UKIP was a catalyst for voters to rethink their position and for the first time, vote for an alternative to Labour. By breaking the seal on Labour tribalism, UKIP facilitated change. So did the Brexit Party. In the 2019 European Parliamentary Elections, the Brexit Party stormed to victory in every English region, excluding London. Even in the north-east and Wales, parliamentary regions that still backed Labour in 2014, Nigel Farage’s party took swathes of voters and took a majority of seats in Brussels. This rewarded Boris Johnson later in December, and the Rowntree Foundation has made clear that with the support of 47 per cent of working-class voters, the Tory now has more support amongst poorer Britons than the nation’s most affluent voters. 

The change embodies the stark change that Britain’s most-read paper, The Sun, has undergone. Back in 1992, the phenomenon of ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’ was born. Since then it is fair to say that The Sun’s Anglo-Welsh editorial team has sided with the party or cause that succeeded, including Brexit. In the aftermath of Tony Blair’s first election success, over half of The Sun’s readers backed Labour. This collapsed in 2005, and the Tories made significant gains. However, by 2019 a poll by The Sun suggested that just 7 per cent of its readers intended to vote for the Labour Party. Even when using YouGov’s 2017 figures, it appears that the Labour Party generates more support from readers of The Financial Times than it does in a paper that barring Thatcher was historically supportive or inclined to support the party.

To conclude, Labour’s monumental defeat last December was unprecedented for two reasons. The first was that the Tories have been in office in one form or another since 2010 and it is usually at this point that the electorate pursues a change in course. However, more importantly, the result was unprecedented because people who once vowed never to vote Conservative did. They did, not just in their handfuls, but in their droves. 

To try and diagnose this defeat as either the fault of Brexit or for that matter, the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn would put paper over the cracks of a problem that threatened the mainstream political establishment for decades. This is not to say that these issues are not of importance. Of course, they were. But it would be fair to claim that both Britain’s membership of the European Union and Labour’s pivot to the left were consequences, not causes, of a deep divide in British politics. 

In fact, both the Brexit position and the uglier parts of Corbynism embody the disconnect felt between traditional Labour voters and the party that once served their interests. The Blairites, who rightfully desired power, positioned themselves to represent voices of voters in Bristol above their traditional voters in seats like Bolsover. Whereas, Corbyn’s unpatriotic connections and the left-ward leanings his party took on social issues were utterly contemptible to voters in seats like Clwyd South. 

Therefore, the inklings of discontent that were visible during Labour’s rebrand at the beginning of the 21st century were greatly exacerbated by the two problems that the party faced last December. It goes without saying that the nation has changed drastically since 2010, let alone since Blair’s first success in 1997. The Thatcherite economic consensus of yesteryear is eroding, and the average voter is now cross-pressured. They tend to lean left-of-centre on economic values, also known as economic patriotism. This includes increases in some forms of taxation and state intervention. However, the patriotism of Britain’s left is left wanting on social issues. Law and order, immigration, defence, and of course post-Brexit identity are all issues that the Labour Party will have to reconcile if it wants to forge a path to power. The Tories found this far easier to do in 2019. The Cummings machine foresaw that voters in Bishop Auckland had more in common with the electorate in safe Tory seats like Brentwood or Broxbourne on key social issues than they did with Labour Remainers in seats like Bethnal Green and Bow. Subsequently, the loosely connected coalition of left-leaning voters has never appeared more fragmented than on the 12th of December 2019 and reuniting the coalition appears a difficult task within the next four years.

By J Walters

Published by Jack Walters

I am currently studying history at University College, London. I have also contributed to BrexitCentral and have conducted political research used by The Daily Telegraph.

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