Labour's neglected North

"If cultural shifts could see the Democrats collapse in what was once their Solid South, any equivocation over Brexit could cause similar erosions in Labour’s currently Neglected North."

The 2016 US election was a watershed moment in American politics, when something once thought unthinkable happened. But I don’t mean the win by a certain Donald J Trump. For the first time since 1920, the Republicans won the Kentucky state legislature, and with it the Democrats lost the last state house in the south they had control of. This may have passed under your radar: the Grand Old Party (as Republicans like to call themselves) has dominated the south for some years and Trump naturally swept the board in this region, taking all bar one of the fourteen southern states (the ominous exception being Virginia, which has moved against the trend). You have to go back to 1976 to find the last presidential election in which the Democrats won a majority of southern states. Now, for the first time in history, the party does not control a single legislative chamber in the south. The Washington Post is one of many news outlets to label the Democratic Party “extinct” in the region. The Labour party in the UK has some lessons to learn from this decline.

From the reconstruction era after the Civil War in 1877 until Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, the southern states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia – were dominated by the Democrats at all levels. However, in 1964, Democrat president Lyndon Johnson passed the historic Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination and enfranchised black voters. Upon signing the legislation, Johnson said to his aide, Bill Moyers: “I think we just delivered the south to the Republican party for a long time to come.” These words proved prophetic. Johnson may have won a landslide majority in the presidential election later that year, but his opponent Barry Goldwater carried all four of the Deep South states, turning them Republican for the first time.

In the run up to his 1972 victory, Richard Nixon employed a successful “southern strategy”, helping the Republicans to win all fourteen Southern states for the first time. Ronald Reagan continued the strategy, solidifying the Republican dominance of the south which has lasted to this day, and he won every southern state in 1984. The feat was also achieved by George W Bush in both his presidential wins. In 2010, Republicans began to complete the task of taking over the south at the non-presidential state level.

Economically and culturally, the north-south divide in the USA almost mirrors that of the UK, although flipped on its head. Labour has won the majority of seats in the north of England at every election since 1945, and you have to go back to 1935 and Stanley Baldwin – a prime minister who many of today’s voters will never have heard of – to find the Conservatives winning the most seats across Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Durham, Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.

Yet Labour’s ‘core vote’ of the industrial northern working class is showing signs of being under threat. The party may have topped June’s poll in Yorkshire and the Humber, the North East and the North West, but in May’s local elections Labour lost leadership of county councils in Lancashire and Northumberland. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire – largely part of the historic and cultural ‘north’ – were also lost. More surprisingly, Labour failed to win the inaugural mayoral elections for the Tees Valley – a region previously represented by such Labour government heavyweights as Alan Milburn, Mo Mowlam and Peter Mandelson.

Indeed, the vast majority of MPs representing seats north of the River Trent were (and are) Labour, yet the general election saw Middlesborough South and East Cleveland (part of the Tees Valley) going Conservative for the first time since its 1997 creation. Despite Labour’s national improvement it lost six seats to the Conservatives at the general election, all in the north and midlands. The shock Copeland by-election defeat in February, which saw Labour lose a seat it had represented since 1935, was a foreboding of what was to come. The party didn’t regain it, and they also lost strongholds like Derbyshire North East (Labour since 1935), Mansfield (Labour since 1923 – the same year the Democrats had governed Kentucky continuously from) and Stoke-On-Trent South (Labour since 1950, the seat’s creation). Alan Meale, who has served the party as its Mansfield MP for three decades, was suddenly given his P45 by voters. In the words of polling guru Peter Kellner, “these are the constituencies that Labour must win back if its leader is to enter Downing Street within the next ten years”.

There were close shaves too: in Bishop Auckland, Labour’s Helen Goodman held on by just 502 votes. Like several of these seats, it has never elected a Conservative MP, yet they are just shy of changing that. Barrow and Furness has been represented by Labour for most of the last century, but was just 209 votes from defying the ‘Corbyn surge’ and going blue. The town and its environs has a long history of naval shipbuilding, manufacturing the Trident missile submarines and, as in neighbouring Copeland, many residents work at the nuclear power plant in Sellafield – a lethal combination, given Corbyn’s vociferous stances on defence, Trident and nuclear power.

The old coal mining seats of Bassetlaw and Rother Valley (the latter once electing a Labour MP unopposed) now have Labour majorities of less than 10 per cent. Bassetlaw’s MP, John Mann, has said that the party “must answer the Bolsover question”: why was there a (7 per cent) swing to the Conservatives? The “Beast of Bolsover”, Dennis Skinner, saw his majority cut to less than 10,000 for the first time. In a seat where he once won 77 per cent of the vote, he now has 51 per cent, with most Ukip voters seemingly migrating to the Conservatives there. It is unthinkable that Bolsover – another area once known for coal mining – could go blue. There are, and have never been, any Conservatives councillors elected to Bolsover district council. But it is perhaps not beyond the realms of possibility.

Rumour had it that Labour organisers in Bolsover had no voter ID data to find their vote; Skinner’s preferred method of campaigning is to travel around with a car and loudspeaker to address constituents. The seat was visited by both Chris Grayling and Philip Hammond during the election campaign, bolstering the strenuous efforts of their candidate Helen Harrison, chair of the pro-Brexit Grassroots Out organisation. Skinner is both an ardent Brexiter and firmly on Labour’s left, but neither of these positions stemmed the Tory tide. In contrast to “safe” Labour seats in London, his vote share increased only modestly.

It was once said that the further north you go in the UK the less appealing the Conservatives are. That notion is currently turned on its head. Indeed, as Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson has noted in the Fabian Review, the Conservatives achieved their best result in the north east since Thatcher’s landslide of 1983. By coincidence, the Conservatives also achieved their best result nationally since 1983, which was the last time they won the most votes across the north (defined by the government as including the north east, north west and Yorkshire and Humberside): “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, in, in, in.” This year, there was only one region of England which saw a swing away from Labour to the Tories. The south east (outside London), home of the gin-and-jag belt of prime minister Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency? No, it was the north east, an area famed for coal mining, with swings to the Conservatives from Labour in 14 of the region’s 22 seats.

Labour overturned majorities of over 7,000 to gain such bastions of socialist revolution as Canterbury and Kensington, both well outside their Top 100 targets, yet Bolton West and Morley & Outwood (Ed Balls’ former seat) were amongst several seats with Conservative majorities of less than 1,000, which did not change. Ironically for the party once the subject of the Fabian Society’s “Southern Discomfort” studies, lamenting its lack of success in the south of England, Labour now finds itself leaping ahead in London and the south east, and beginning to feel that it’s grim up north.

Corbyn’s inner cadre of his most senior shadow cabinet ministers for the four great offices of state (prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary and foreign secretary) all represent London seats, as do arguably the two other most important members of the team, responsible for Brexit and international trade. In this respect, Labour’s highest-ranking MPs are as southern-leaning as their Tory counterparts. In the 1980s, a rundown Liverpool became synonymous with the aggressive Militant faction of Labour. Today, you might argue that the centre of such newsworthy agitation is 272 miles south, in the UK’s “hippest city”, Brighton.

Whatever his flaws may have been, the last Labour leader to win a general election had his political roots in the north. Tony Blair spent his formative years in Durham, and was later elected as MP for Sedgefield in the same county. It was here that could be said to have inspired Blair’s concept of “New Labour”. While canvassing in the area for the 1992 election, he had met a self-employed electrician polishing his Ford car, who had switched from Labour to Conservative after making a success of his business. This was the basis for “Mondeo man”: the kind of aspirant working-class voter that Labour needed to win over – and did so handsomely – for the 1997 election.

Research from Paula Surridge, a political sociologist at the University of Bristol, shows that in the 2017 election, the more working class a seat was, the more likely it was to swing to the Tories. Furthermore, analysis of census data in 2015 revealed Hull, Wakefield, Sunderland, Carlisle and County Durham to be amongst the most working class areas in England and Wales. In Wakefield, a seat held by Labour since 1932, Mary Creagh saw her majority cut, keeping it on a knife edge. Less vulnerable, but also seeing swings from Labour to the Conservatives were seats in Hull, Sunderland and County Durham – the latter encompassing Blair’s Sedgefield. There was a negligible swing to Labour in Carlisle, but it was a comfortable Conservative hold in a seat which has voted Labour for most of the last hundred years. It is the kind of marginal seat Labour need to win to take power: they have never formed a majority government without Carlisle.

These seats (with the exception of the student-heavy City of Durham) all also share something with Labour’s losses: a strong EU Leave vote. It is estimated that 70.9 per cent of voters in Mansfield opted for Brexit, whilst there was also a convincing result in Middlesborough South and East Cleveland (65 per cent), North-East Derbyshire (62.2 per cent) and Copeland (59.8 per cent). You don’t need me to tell you that turning these figures upside down gives you Remain votes of similarly convincing strength in Kensington, Battersea and, to a lesser extent, Canterbury. This perhaps also reflects the numbers of activists on the doorstep, as Labour’s membership is known to be heavily concentrated in metropolitan areas, particularly in the south of England.

Political watchers pondered whether a Leave vote could hand the north of England to Ukip in the same manner that the Scottish independence referendum gave virtually every Labour seat there to the SNP. Ukip have been effectively neutered by Theresa May’s Conservative party, but they made one telling gain in May’s local elections by taking a seat from Labour in Lancashire. Labour did of course make parliamentary gains in the north this June, but the trend in what it has long regarded as its heartlands, populated by less educated, more white, more working class, older voters, points to long-term decline. Alongside working-class dissatisfaction, many of these seats are experiencing gentrification as the coal mines are replaced by new build executive housing. Dennis Skinner acknowledges this himself, commenting that “there’s not as many miners as there were… four motorways go through Bolsover”.

The Republican party’s “southern strategy”, involving what we would now refer to as “dog-whistle electioneering” – exploitation of racial divisions in the region – has been attributed to their victories in the region. The Conservative party is of course adept at such tactics – are you thinking what we’re thinking? Others, however, have argued that the southern states of America simply became more middle class, less rural and more suburban, leading to the “southernization” of US politics. There’s electoral gold in those hills for the Conservatives.

If cultural shifts could see the Democrats collapse in what was once their Solid South, any equivocation over Brexit could cause similar erosions in Labour’s currently Neglected North. But with the growth of Blue Labour, and the influence of Blairite group Progress, Chuka Umunna’s prediction that the future direction of the party will “draw on New and Blue” may be sage.  If these visions can patch up the party’s Brexit wounds, the North may not yet be lost.


Theo Morgan is a Young Fabian.

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