Noah Froud is a Young Fabian and member of the contributing writer team. He tweets at @yesah_
Today, towns are seen as emblematic of the “left behind”. As areas which voted Leave in the EU referendum and in which Labour has been in retreat for a substantial amount of time, they present a serious problem for the party. Those who see politics as a divide between the socially and geographically mobile “anywheres” and more rooted “somewheres” see towns and their residents as representative Somewhere Britain. The argument goes that these people are rooted in their communities which they feel have lost out from globalisation.
There has been a lot of talk of the need for Labour to win back town voters who we’ve lost, particularly since 2010. After the 2015 general election, The Smith Institute noted “The biggest failings were in suburbia, small towns and new towns. Labour also did poorly in seaside towns” and in 2017 there was an increase in the Conservative vote in small towns. Yet we need to start talking more about how exactly Labour wins back towns.
Labour’s town problem is undeniable. But, the 2017 electoral result suggests the somewhere/anywhere analysis doesn’t predict or dictate voter behaviour entirely.
To me, the remarkable fact about Labour’s decline in towns is the extent to which Labour has been able to hold on. Yes, we lost six seats, all of which are “Brexit towns”, but the real story is we only lost six seats. Labour’s vote share and number of votes increased in many “traditional labour” seats which are said to be under threat on top of this, a significant proportion of UKIP voters returned to Labour. To me, this puts to bed the hardest version of the Somewheres vs Anywhere narrative, it shows that globalisation itself is not the single dividing line in our politics. Town voters do not just worry about immigration, but jobs, housing and austerity. Somewhere towns and anywhere cities have more in common than many commentators assume.
Labour has a town problem, but if we look at our policies, it really shouldn’t. The shift began under Ed Miliband and cemented under Jeremy Corbyn means that the party is a strong critic of the dislocation caused by the market in our society. This should be in tune with many town voters. They realise that their communities have been failed by an economy which prioritises market forces and therefore leads to the aggregation of wealth within small areas of our country.
Yet Labour’s message often fails to pick up on this. Partly, this is because of how we think as a party. If you asked Labour members why they joined the party most would mention words like equality or fairness, some might mention Jeremy Corbyn or Conservative policies they oppose. How many would use the word “community”, which seems so important to many voters in towns? How many more would mention policies like lower tuition fees and rail nationalisation as opposed to regional development banks? If you asked a voter which was the party of “equality” they would say Labour. If you asked them which was the party of “localism” or “community” they would probably look at you blankly. We need to make the answer to the second question Labour, every time and everywhere.
Nearly 70% of voters in towns agree with the statement “politicians don’t care about my area”. If we want to change that we need to change the way the party operates. Labour and its associated groupings are inherently and unnecessarily city-focused. This is not an inevitable or natural, it’s a product of conscious choice.
For example, Labour held its annual conference in seaside towns for 50 years after the Second World War. When towns like Blackpool went into decline, Labour stayed. Whilst party conferences have mainly been held in seaside towns for the amount of cheap accommodation, there’s an important and meaningful symbolism in the party leaving the metropole for a town otherwise removed from the nation’s political life. Yet, since 2008, the conference has been held in Manchester, Liverpool and Brighton. None are areas which voted Leave, none are areas where Labour is fundamentally struggling and none are areas which, are on the whole, suffering serious economic malaise. No wonder voters in towns think politicians don’t care about their area.
Labour was built on an alliance between workers in both towns and cities. Today, that alliance is still possible. Problems like financial insecurity and the devastating impact of austerity are the same across our country. But to realise the potential that is so clearly there, it’s vital the party invests hard resources in making towns the basis of our movement once again.