Notes from Back Home
My home city is now Blue, mostly. Wolverhampton lost two Labour MPs and just about clung onto its third in December’s election. I spent several days back home over Christmas and despite my attempts to avoid politics, my friends and family members couldn’t help but engage me in conversation. I listened to what they had to say and thought I’d write up what they shared with me for the benefit of the wider Labour Party.
Many issues arose from my time back home. Notably our leadership and our Brexit position. On Brexit we simply couldn’t compete with “Get Brexit Done”. Our message was complicated in comparison and didn’t speak to people who had seen Westminster argue about it for over three years with little action. They wanted action and the Conservatives promised that. Given Wolverhampton voted to Leave by 69%, these frustrations shouldn’t be surprising. Similarly our leader came up time and again as “people took one look at him and thought “Nope”” according to one friend. It was summed up by a family member who said: “The party leader is the singer of a band, if people don’t like him then they won’t care for the rest of the group”. This seems to suggest that people didn’t even bother looking at what we had to offer beyond our leader. Our manifesto might have had some excellent policies and was fully costed. We might have had some excellent candidates but people look at the leader to see if they will make a good Prime Minister. If they don’t agree then they’re unlikely to vote for us.
There is also real anger that Labour seemed to speak to “London metropolitan elites” more than the estates of Bushbury or Pendeford. One friend described the possibility of Emily Thornberry becoming leader as a disaster for winning back Midlands voters. The infamous “Image from Rochester” would be on every Tory election leaflet in 2024 they said. Another friend had real anger in his voice when he told me he couldn’t vote Labour because of Corbyn. He then said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s only achievement has been to get the sons and grandsons of miners to go out in the cold and rain and vote Tory”. This damning statement should make us realise that we need to listen and work with our whole broad church if we are to win back people in the Midlands and get back into power. After all the game is seats not vote share and piling up votes in large cities is not enough. We need to win back places like Wolverhampton, Dudley and West Bromwich.
There was also a feeling that we offered too much which seemed unrealistic to many. We promised the people a revolution and radical change, but British people don’t do revolutions, we don’t do radical change. I heard we’d do better to drop the focus on Cuba and Venezuela and focus on issues that speak to people here. Our perceived lack of patriotism really hurt us in our heartlands. For example, we are seen as weak on Law & Order and Defense, two key areas which the Tories appeared strong on, despite the repeated cuts they have made over the past decade.
There was also a lack of understanding when it came to working-class aspiration, we spoke a lot about the poorest in our society and we were right to do that. However, we didn’t seem to offer anything to those people who have been fairly successful and live in the suburbs. According to a friend who was at Wolverhampton’s count our suburban vote tanked in the outskirts of Wolverhampton where we lost previously marginal wards by thousands of votes.
Based on these conversations it is clear Labour voters in the Midlands have been clearly hit by a decade of austerity and cuts. But our message of hope simply didn’t land for the reasons outlined above. Without it many felt they had nothing to lose by voting Conservative. In 2017 we did a good job of steering the debate away from Brexit, but we seemed to have lost steam in the past two years and this time people had had enough and Brexit dominated. The future must be to speak up and campaign regularly for issues which affect those who turned away from us. We need to offer people better prospects we can deliver. We need to get back to campaigning on issues and making them stick, rather than a press release which makes that days news. It needs to be consistent over days and weeks so that the public have the opportunity to hear it. Issues such as housing, jobs and training and the environment are all key. We also need to have a greater focus on winning back the elderly who now largely vote Tory. Adding them to our coalition of voters is essential to getting back into government.
As we say in the Black Country Labour will have to “go ’round The Wrekin” if we’re to get back into power. Winning in the likes of Wolverhampton, Dudley and Walsall is unlikely to be a five year project, we’re probably talking a decade. This includes winning back some seats which were Labour until 2010 but now have huge Tory majorities such as Dudley South as well as the ones we have just lost. While some seats like both West Bromwiches are likely to be in play next time, it depends on the leader we have and whether we can speak to areas like the West Midlands. In the short term there is a very steep hill to climb for whoever is selected to contest May’s West Midlands Mayoral and local council elections.
I hope people will read this piece and consider what’s been said. I’m only relaying what I heard from my time back home. It’s time Labour listened more to voters in places like Wolverhampton, the city feels like it’s been ignored for far too long.