By Michael Calderbank
The publication of “Northern Discomfort” – a new pamphlet from Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery warning Labour to take urgent and decisive action to rebuild the party’s damaged reputation in non-metropolitan working class communities in the former industrial north and midlands – is very welcome. It’s just a shame that the publication of this warning was apparently blocked prior to the December’s General Election.
But if anyone believes that the collapse of the “red wall” seats was simply the product of Brexit, or a reaction to Corbyn’s leadership, their illusions should be swiftly dispelled. As Trickett and Lavery rightly state, the collapse in this vote has been decades in the making. As with Scotland, the view that the working class in safe Labour seats had “nowhere else to go” has proved disastrously wrong, and was responsible for the slow hollowing-out of the party over the course of many years.
Let’s not forget that the many of the shock troops of the Blair project came from the North East – Blair himself represented Sedgefield, and was supported by a phalanx of right wing backers including Stephen Byers, Alan Milburn and Hilary Armstrong. Such was the contempt for the views of ordinary Labour members in these areas, that the party could get away with simply parachuting the likes of Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) and David Miliband (South Shields) into areas with which they had no connection whatsoever.
New Labour ideologues would refer to these communities – and the local institutions of the traditional labour movement – with barely concealed disdain. Trade unionists were depicted as “dinosaurs”, “stuck in the past”, whose industries were “dying out” and who therefore needed to modernise and move with the times (ie. accept that neoliberal globalisation was beyond challenge). Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010 and it’s not difficult to see why.
But what has been increasingly clear following the debate over whether Labour should honour its promise to respect the Brexit referendum result, or else concede to the liberal establishment’s demand for a 2nd referendum, is that a significant section of “progressive” opinion – including some who consider themselves Corbyn supporters on the “radical left” – essentially share the same elitist disdain towards a large section of the working class.
The old Blairite rhetoric came back under a new guise – as non-Metropolitan working class was seen as ageing residual vestiges of yesterday’s world. But worse, they were now seen as stupid, racist or bigoted for falling to fall into line with the Westminster consensus.
Labour’s capacity to rebuild its support in the former-industrial “heartland” seats depends on our ability to reverse the dominant middle class assumptions of the last three decades of development in the party. We cannot and should not aim to turn the clock back to a romanticised past. Nor can it mean turning our back on the wider diversity of the working class – including the younger and more diverse communities in our Cities. Only by holding both poles of our support together can we hope to win an election winning coalition.
The report’s recommendations go some way to explaining how we recover. Properly democratic, federally-organised party structures would certainly help to act as a counterbalance to a London-dominated party. We have to look to rebalance the demographics of party membership, and address financial barriers to working class party members in the north participating, for example, as delegates to Conference. Similarly, Trickett and Lavery are right to look at radical constitutional change to empower citizens in the English regions.
However there are other structural factors at play in the decline of the “Labour North” that are not remarked upon:
Accountability in local government
Taking voters for granted is not just a problem for the party nationally. Labour has dominated local government in many areas across the North and Midlands that we’re now seen as the political establishment when it comes to the Town Hall. With the party hollowing out, and the wider labour movement atrophying, oftentimes local campaigning has become dependent on councillors seeking re-election. It can appear that a professional political class is parasitical upon the community, particularly where the emphasis has been on the competent administration of austerity cuts rather than advocating on behalf of the needs of residents. Party members have little say over the policies pursued by Labour in local government – and the Democracy Review did little to correct this. We need to reform to ensure that local councillors are effective champions for their communities.
The logic of neglecting the electorate in “safe seats” is a structural feature of the First Past the Post system. Parties can rot from the inside before their electoral fortunes collapse, and then – as Scotland demonstrates – there’s no quick fix to turn the situation around. We need a wide-ranging debate across the party on how reform of the electoral system might make every vote count.
New organising models
The pamphlet recognises that directing community organisers solely to marginal seats is a huge missed opportunity in terms of building the capacity of the party on a national basis. Whilst fighting and winning elections is rightly a priority for the party at every level (and always has been), the more narrowly electoralist the party becomes the less electorally successful it is capable of being in the long term. Labour works when we’re grounded in our communities, and organising around immediate, concrete needs. We need to ground the way we organise in how we can help people collectively to change their own lives, rather than just promising to do things for people if they elect us.
The tradition of the Workers Educational Association had an enormous impact across the North, as working class people were empowered to understand their own social, historical and cultural situation. There’s nothing wrong with the discussion of ideas, analysis and theory – we must reject anti-intellectualism. But at the same time this discussion should be grounded in the realities of class experience, and the context of the practical needs of our communities. Too often, self-proclaimed radicals are engaged in displaying their own apparent sophistication rather than adding to collective understanding.
Ultimately, we can’t just wait for the Leadership to reverse the decline. Socialists living and rooted in Northern working class communities need to organise ourselves to make sure that reactionary politics doesn’t step into a vacuum left by Labour’s retreat. This should not be restricted to card-carrying members of the party, but should be based on a broad left spectrum of voices from across the Labour movement, whether traditional or emerging.