The Labour Party’s resounding defeat in the UK’s recent general election was not quite unexpected.
But the sheer scale of the party’s collapse — especially in its post-industrial heartland areas — took many people by surprise.
For large portions of the electorate, Labour’s offer was found badly wanting.
There have been a series of elaborate attempts over the past few days to analyse the finer points of the result. For some, Labour’s compromise position on Brexit was too ambiguous, leading to the loss of crucial stores of both Leave and Remain voters. For others, the party’s demonised and unpopular leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was the main reason for its worst seat total since 1935.
Putting aside such speculations, the overarching geographical narrative of the election is plain to see. In a simple mathematical sense, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won a comfortable majority because it managed to win dozens of seats from Labour in de-industrialised parts of the English north and Midlands.
The loss of this so-called Red Wall, a palisade of one-time Labour strongholds stretching from West Bromwich on the outskirts of Birmingham to Blyth Valley near the Scottish border, was partly due to short-term, contingent factors. Chief among them was Brexit — every one of the relinquished northern and Midland seats voted to leave the European Union in 2016 — and Corbyn, whom many voters appeared to distrust.
But the collapse of the Red Wall was so wide-ranging and so profound that it cannot be explained merely with reference to the nuances of the 2019 campaign. Labour’s relationship with its heartlands has been deteriorating for generations now. The defeat, seemingly sudden and spectacular, was decades in the making.
Labour under Corbyn failed to develop a really assertive, popular strategy for reviving the postindustrial regions it took for granted for too long.
At the root of Labour’s waning support in England’s post-industrial regions is a basic historical fact: The industrial communities that gave rise to the birth of the labour movement no longer exist. Unlike many European social democratic parties, the Labour Party, as its name suggests, began as the direct political expression of British organised labour — a loose federation of trade unions that developed into the main opposition party in the first decades of the 20th century.
Inevitably, as Labour became a party of government — tentatively in the 1920s and ‘30s, and then more assertively after the Second World War — its hierarchy grew increasingly London-centric. Yet for nearly a century, the grass roots context that spawned the party meant that its democratic power base remained grounded in the industrial regions. In the mines of County Durham, the pottery workshops of Staffordshire and the textile factories of Lancashire, workers felt their identity to be synonymous with the Labour cause.
But throughout the 20th century, even as the Labour Party grew in power, Britain’s manufacturing base was in slow decline. With the election in 1979 of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — an ardent advocate of neo-liberal economics — the British economy’s industrial grounding was more or less abandoned as a lost cause. In Labour’s northern and Midland heartlands, the final destruction of the mines, factories and shipyards resulted in social devastation. As these workplaces disappeared, so too did the surrounding community infrastructure — the union meetings, brass band ensembles and workingmen’s clubs — that nurtured Labour support.
Labour’s rightward drift under Tony Blair
Alongside this destruction of the communitarian basis for Labourism, the entrenchment of neo-liberalism in the ’80s and ’90s meant that post-industrial areas were increasingly isolated from the country’s economic development. With Labour’s rightward drift under Tony Blair, whole sections of the north and Midlands were virtually abandoned as electoral targets. The New Labour government, which ruled from 1997 to 2010, tended to orient policy around London’s financial services and large corporations, while taking it for granted that the heartlands to the north would always return Labour legislators as a matter of tribal allegiance. They continued to do so, but with dwindling enthusiasm and fewer votes.
What has happened fairly decisively at the close of the 2010s is that the combination of vanishing Labour heritage in the post-industrial areas and a feeling of anger about socioeconomic marginalisation have dovetailed to finally sever the bonds between the party and its traditional base. The sorts of seats that the Conservatives won from Labour on December 12 — like Bolsover in the North Midlands and Bishop Auckland in the North East — have been slipping steadily away from Labour in successive elections since the Blairite period. At the end of the 2010s, they simply fell off a cliff.
There is a sense in which the Labour Party’s rediscovery of its radical roots following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as its leader in 2015 arrived too little and too late to check these long-term processes of fraction and disillusion. Under Corbyn, Labour developed an economic and social programme that would have begun the revival of its heartlands — with concrete proposals for reinvestment in community infrastructure and workers’ rights. And in the 2017 election, though the North East swung ominously toward the Conservatives, the party mostly managed to arrest the slow decline of its support.
No such stemming was achieved this year. Many of the party’s ideas, which were not cogently communicated to the electorate in the party’s over-elaborate 2019 manifesto, remained abstract promises. And two and a half years of parliamentary impasse hardened attitudes about Brexit, while Labour’s vacillating stance on the issue pleased no one.
Perhaps more to the point, Labour under Corbyn failed to develop a really assertive, popular strategy for reviving the postindustrial regions it took for granted for too long. For the Conservatives, an opportunistic appeal to pro-Brexit sentiment — voters seem to have rallied behind Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” slogan — and disenchantment with Labour were enough to conquer the Red Wall.
There are obvious limits to what Labour — as a party locked in opposition, most likely for the next five years — can plausibly do to re-empower and re-engage with the territories it presided over for the long 20th century. Nevertheless, it must now develop a compelling offer. Making the case assertively for devolution of power to the English regions and the relocation of major institutions outside of London could be a start.
It will be difficult, but the party must try. If it does not, it will not only remain on the political margins for far longer than five years. It will also have said goodbye once and for all to the better side of its own history.
— Alex Niven is a lecturer at Newcastle University in England and the author, most recently, of New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England