After positive results for the Labour Party in Worthing, Ingrid Allan looks at why traditional Tory voters are turning away from the Conservative Party.
It is rare to see my adopted hometown, the sleepy former Victorian resort of Worthing, make the national news. With a modest population of 110,000 and a strangely transient feel to its elegant but dilapidated mixture of 19th and 20th century architecture, I often heard it referred to as ‘God’s waiting-room’ because of its high percentage of pensioners.
But that was back in 2017, when I was still working in retail, had just relocated, and was treating it as a bit of a stop gap until I either won the lottery or rents in Brighton and Hove became more affordable. I was a relatively new recruit to the Labour Party, having joined not long before the general election that year, and was keen to make politically like-minded friends in a town where I knew literally no-one. Shortly before I attended my first meeting, we gained our first councillor in forty-one years.
So why is the migration of one low-paid millennial relevant to the transformation of this once true-blue Tory stronghold? Demographic changes form a major puzzle piece, though they are not the sole cause of the Conservatives’ downfall. In the past decade the population has increased by a slight but notable 6,000 but seen a real-terms drop of 8.1% in those aged 65 and over, despite this being the fastest-growing age-group in the rest of the county. At the time of the 2011 census, it was still 93% white and 58% Christian, but it has since become significantly more diverse, with a vibrant and enterprising central and south-east Asian community. Mortgages may not be cheap in Worthing, but unlike much of the Southeast, they are still affordable to double-income households in public and service-sector jobs. And with young families keen to put down roots in the area, and the hall used by both Constituency Labour Parties functioning as a literal nursery during the day, it forms an entirely logical base for all of these groups to congregate.
Still, all the demographic-changes in the world don’t translate into votes without the visibility of a dynamic and committed CLP. As many of us found when we first began to canvas areas left untouched by most parties for years, progressive voters are often wedded to the practice of tactical-voting that our antiquated first-past-the-post system has made a depressing necessity. If they don’t feel a strong labour presence in the town, they’re more than likely to vote for a smaller party believing that it’s the only way to get the Tories out. Labour’s success, on Friday, in Tarring ward came as a surprise to many, even the activists who had targeted it tirelessly for the past five years, because it was perceived to be a Liberal Democrat stronghold. Yet their hard work paid off, and resentment for the actions of the national Conservative party was strong enough on the doorstep to make even lifelong Lib Dem voters change tactics at the 11th hour.
On the very edge of the South Downs, with a distinct new-town vibe, Northbrook ward was one of the biggest surprises of the day. Despite not being a major target, we were told early on that Labour had taken it by a very slim margin, that margin ended up being a mere 14 votes, despite the tories holding it with an almost 300-vote majority just last year. The area is indicative of the complacency of major property developers up and down the country. Its sea of red-brick new-builds are charming enough, but despite repeated promises that the area would have its own park (complete with pond and wildlife garden) a new school and new shops and amenities, none of it has materialised.
Instead, access to one of England’s most beautiful national parks is depressingly limited, even to those who can see it from their bedroom windows, there is nowhere for families to congregate, and the nearest pub is a half-hour walk away across several busy roads. It struck me too, when canvassing the area, that practically every second door had a dog barking behind it, yet the council has decreed that anyone wishing to exercise their dog in a safe, enclosed park or field has to get in their car in order to reach one.
The sense of dissatisfaction with paying ever-higher council-tax for a reduced number of services and infrastructure that sorely needs updating, has been reflected across Worthing. While it may be tempting the assume the election results were a protest to those who partied while others were denied a chance to visit dying family members, it wouldn’t explain why much of the rest of the ‘blue sea wall’ is still intact. The creation of Worthing’s first ever Labour council has been the culmination of years of hard work by members and candidates, to spread a message of hope that a fairer, greener local authority which actually listened to residents was possible. And in Beccy Cooper, a Doctor of public health, with an infectious enthusiasm and the kind of Yorkshire accent which used to be a party staple, this new council couldn’t hope for a better leader.
I moved to Worthing for the cheaper rents and convenient transport links, but I stayed, because it’s actually a great place to live. The climate is mild, even on days when the west wind blasts in off the sea, it boasts stunning deco architecture, on a grander scale than almost any other town in Sussex, and it has all the quirks that make a town of this size feel like a close-knit, welcoming community, including a charming independent cinema and the largest allotment site in the county. And cycling home from an evening swim at Splashpoint, it's hard not to have your breath taken away by the sight of a vast murmuration peppering a crimson and mauve sunset over the elegant pier. But in standing in the sunshine outside the leisure centre as the results poured in, and the cheers rang out, I finally knew what it felt like to be truly proud of the place I now call home.
Ingrid Allan is a youth worker, with a background in education, and serves as youth officer for Worthing West constituency Labour Party. Born and raised in Edinburgh, she moved to the South East as a student in 2013.