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Losing the North

by | January 26, 2020

Just how serious is Labour’s problem in the North of England? As Lewis Baston points out, the journalistic cliche of the ‘red wall’ that developed over the last few weeks is highly misleading.

The myth resonates because it stems from a partial historical truth. Labourism was born in the industrial North, arising, bottom-up, through a series of patchwork cultures and organisations. The handloom weavers of Yorkshire and Lancashire in the late eighteenth century. Chartism in the middle of the nineteenth century. Early mining unions in Durham, textile unions across Lancashire and Yorkshire. The cooperative movement, with its support for mutual aid, working-class education, and arts. Trades councils across major northern industrial centres from Manchester to Sheffield to Newcastle. Collectively, these radical and oppositional currents slowly prised loose the grip of Liberalism across the North. Labour’s first council seat was in Colne Valley, a constituency that just reverted to Conservative control. Its first substantial parliamentary efforts were in northern towns like Bradford.

And yet, the idea of a homogeneously red North is a myth. Labour’s northern support was always highly regional and sectional. Until the Fifties, many parts of Midlands, the North and Scotland voted Tory on the basis sectarian anti-Catholicism and support for empire. In the ensuing decades, the secularisation of culture led to these areas becoming Labour for the first time. Changes to the class-demographics of other seats turned hard Tory constituencies into marginals. For example, Enoch Powell’s former constituency used to be overwhelmingly Tory. By 1992, it was a marginal, and by 1997 it swung heavily to Labour. But at the same time, demographic and industrial change, combined with the defeats inflicted on the trade union movement, and the crushing of ‘municipal socialism’, turned a number of red northern seats into marginals, and then into Tory safe seats.

Dozens of the seats won by the Tories in the last election are marginals. Many of the areas these constituencies cover are far from being especially poor, or high unemployment, despite the pronounced poverty and economic ruin of large parts of the north. Look at the employment structure of somewhere like Wrexham, and you’ll be surprised by how many professionals, managers and technicians there are alongside precarious, low paid service workers. It’s also important to recall that Labour remains very strong in large parts of the north, from red Liverpool to what Jonny Pitts calls the ‘Afropean’ multicultures of Sheffield. Against a nationwide swing against Labour of 8 per cent, the party held the decidedly marginal seat of Sheffield Hallam, having only just pinched it from Nick Clegg, despite the controversies associated with the previous incumbent. Tyne and Wear, despite a general swing against Labour in the north-east, remains solidly red.

Labour’s real problem, tellingly, is in a string of former single-industry towns and constituencies, stretching from Wrexham to Stoke-on-Trent to Grimsby. Conservative strategists, writing before the election, could see some of the demographic trends favouring the Tories. Over the last decade, dozens and dozens of formerly industrial towns have become ghost towns. Their youth population has shrank, their retiree population has exploded. Among the towns mentioned in the Tory analysis is Darlington, where the retiree population has risen by a fifth in the last decade, while the 18-24s have shrank. Where did all the young people go? Many of them will have fled to the cities, where they had some chance of a future. I remember visiting Darlington a few years back, and just listening to people talk. The chasm between the educated worldliness of young people, and their prospects, was heart-wrenching. Talk high theory over a pub table, then get up early to work in a high street retail outlet, or a charity shop. If they voted, they would probably vote for the Labour incumbent, or maybe the Greens. I suspect many of them just left.

And you find this pattern a lot. Overwhelmingly white, elderly towns with little remaining of their industrial base, a smaller than average youth population stuck in precarious, low-income work, and a Leave-voting majority. Historically Labour, just gone Tory for the first time. Where once the mining or steelworkers unions would persuade people to vote Labour, now there is little to connect people to the Labour Party outside of election season. They are poorly connected by public transport, and they have a lot of health problems and a run down NHS. The government doesn’t do much for them. Look at Laura Pidcock’s former constituency, North-West Durham. It has been Labour since the Second World War. Its mining and steel workers were the unionised core of local labourism. There was a fairly big Liberal-SDP challenge in the 1980s, but even then it remained Labour. And amid a vengeful anti-Tory swing in the 1990s, Labour easily held the seat with a huge majority. Since 2001, however, millions of voters have stopped bothering. Pidcock’s addition of 5,000 votes to Labour’s total in 2017, was a departure from the trend.

Since Labour had three terms in office, you might think it would have been well-placed to attack the sources of industrial decline in such areas. And, to be fair, New Labour had a strategy for doing just that. Naturally, Blair didn’t favour the use of state intervention, still less nationalisation, to protect manufacturing jobs. The era of the state picking a winner, was deemed conclusively ended by Thatcher. Instead, alongside an increase in public spending supported by strong financial growth, they deployed Regional Development Agencies to support businesses and start-ups. In the neoliberal idiom preferred by New Labour, their remit was to promote ‘a more entrepreneurial society’, attacking the ‘lack of entrepreneurial culture’ that held such places back. The best that could be said for the RDAs is that they were poorly funded, top-down efforts, with the wrong priorities, and nowhere near capable of stopping the existing industrial decline, let alone reversing the regional inequities produced by the City-led growth model that New Labour embraced. As such, the underlying trends running down the quality of life in these towns, and eroding Labour support, were not seriously addressed. Had Labour won in 2017, it’s possible that McDonnell’s strategy of spending billions on an infrastructural upgrade would have changed those dynamics. At this stage, however, quite a lot of voters in these constituencies no longer believe they can be changed. Or that there’s anything that can be done to stop their children from leaving.

It is quite possible that the severing of the link with Labour in these kinds of seats is not a blip, but an epochal shift. Sure, many of them will be won back. But in some places, the swing against Labour simply confirmed a long-term drift, to which 2017 was an exception. So, if the central belt of Scotland is lost, and if many of the single-industry towns of the North are lost, where are Labour’s heartlands now? The answer is that, outside the valleys of southern Wales, Labour’s heartlands are now in the big cities and urban centres across England. It’s quite possible that future areas of Labour growth will be among the new working-class populations of Hastings, Southampton and Chingford, rather than in Burnley and Workington.

The question is, how worried should we be about that? In the short-term, the answer is obvious. Losing these seats gave the Conservatives a big majority to implement a radical-right, hard-nationalist agenda. We should be terrified by that. There is a lot that Johnson can do with the power of office to reorganise British capitalism, and the state, to the enormous disadvantage of the Left and of all subaltern populations. Indeed, if Johnson is smart, he will borrow and target investment at these switching towns. If he is smart, he will say, ‘your children shouldn’t have to leave your town to get a job’. Notwithstanding the structural stupidity of the British ruling class, the reckless opportunism and short-termism of Johnson and his cohorts, the prudent assumption is that the Conservatives will be just smart enough to do what it must. It has survived for over two hundred years by adapting to new political pressures, and by adopting and taking credit for the ideas of the Left. It would be proof of the utterly decadent state of the Conservatives if they couldn’t adapt now. So, while it would be insane for Labour not to try to organise and rebuild in those dying towns, hopefully without the patronising ‘Blue Labour’ garbage, the Tories can stack the odds against us. Yes, we should be worried. And we should be taking a lead from activists and organisers in the north if we want to orient ourselves to face this situation.

However, having said all that, why should Labour’s support be eternally in the north? Capitalism is a perpetual motion machine. It’s a perpetual crisis machine. And crises of capitalism are always, in part, crises of the Left and its traditional modes of survival, reproduction and occasional offensive. The spatial patterns of capital accumulation are always changing. The generational geographies discussed above, index such a shift. Suppose the new working class, less organised than its forebear, expands outside of these former heartland towns? Suppose the Left’s purchase is indeed found in new parts of the South? If so, isn’t that a trend we just have to get ahead of? Ought we not be thinking about how to get those places organised? Ought we not, that is, forget the good old things and look to the bad new things?

Richard Seymour is a founding editor of Salvage, an author and a broadcaster. He is the author of The Twittering Machine (2019), Corbyn (2016, 2017) and others. His writing appears, among many others, in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and Al Jazeera. This piece originally appeared on his Patreon page, where you can support his work.