More radical ideas needed to win back the heartlands

Michael Calderbank looks at a new report from the Fabian Society, Hearts and Minds: Winning the Working Class Vote, edited by John Healey.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 General Election, a ragbag grouping of defeated candidates, media pundits and right wing ideologues sought to pile the blame on Jeremy Corbyn personally, regardless of the toxicity of the pro-Remain position they had forced onto him.   They clearly sought to malign the brand of leftist radicalism Corbyn represented as somehow instinctively repellent to the more small-c “conservative” working class voters in places like Bolsover.  

While apparently effective in giving them a short-term factional edge to Corbyn’s opponents, this simplistic narrative is a problematic legacy for Starmer to inherit as the Party heads into its first set of elections under his leadership.  If the great bogeyman has been replaced and the Party put in the hands of a more “electable” leadership, shouldn’t we expect to see some evidence of Labour’s rapid recovery in these alienated communities?    

In reality, even the more serious of Starmer’s lieutenants know full-well that – whatever personal animosity a media-fuelled hate campaign towards Corbyn might have generated on the doorstep – the problem of working class disengagement and alienation from Labour pre-dates his leadership considerably.  As editor of this pamphlet and Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey acknowledges, “We lost 87 seats to the Tories in 2010 and 8 in 2015; 83% of these constituencies went on to vote Leave” [in the 2016 EU Referendum].  

Labour MPs who were once ensconced in rock-solid ‘safe seats’ now find themselves in marginal seats. Bridget Philipson recalls that her predecessor Fraser Kemp had a majority of 26,000 in her Houghton and Sunderland South seat, which now has a majority of just over 3,000.  Majorities on this scale encouraged the neglect of working class communities in favour of micro-targeting ‘swing voters’ in marginal seats – on the grounds that traditional Labour voters had “nowhere else to go”.

This was a logical product of the first past the post electoral system.  While not tackled directly in this pamphlet, USDAW’s General Secretary Paddy Lillis admits in his foreword, “Labour faces new battlegrounds in places where significant campaigns have not been fought for generations.”

In other words, people in ‘heartand’ areas have been treated as though they were insignificant – because Labour had comfortable majorities. Take people for granted over years, and they will understandably begin to resent it. But by this stage the alienation has become deep-seated. 

Understandably, Healey and his fellow contributors, almost all of whom are Labour MPs, want to ‘look forward’ rather than rake over the causes of the 2019 defeat again.   But move forward in which direction?   If the claim is that Labour under Corbyn played too-far into its new ‘comfort zone’ of younger people, students and professional graduates with ‘woke’ outlooks on social questions, then surely any move to return the Party to a more socially conservative place would risk losing a key section of the electorate which did vote Labour?  At the same time, attempting to compete on terms where the Tories currently enjoy an advantage has no guarantee of success.

Should Labour be somehow reclaiming the language of “patriotism” (Dan Jarvis), “security” (Bridget Philipson), “law and order” (Nick Thomas-Symonds) or being “pro-business” (Jonathan Reynolds) without either surrendering core principles or alienating existing support?  The contributors would appear to believe so, but whether this can be translated into a practical programme remains far from clear.

The nadir here is the approach of Yvonne Fovargue, who opposes the principle of universality in welfare provision (in favour of the ‘contributory’ principle), while, in the name of ‘a fair approach’, also argues, “We should also be tougher as a party about insisting that failed asylum seekers are sent back and that illegal immigrants are returned quickly to their country of origin” – without the right of appeal, perhaps?

 This is a step back to the “controls on immigration” mugs widely derided under Ed Miliband’s leadership. To write this after the Windrush scandal shows a tin-ear to the concerns of BAME people, who of course also make up a key section of the working class electorate.

As the more persuasive contributions, such as that co-authored by Barking and Dagenham Council Leader Darren Rodwell, suggest, the simplistic binary divisions of identity, between young, ethnically diverse urban graduates and traditional white working class, for example, or Red Wall vs the South, are in fact cut across by some of the same fundamental concerns. These include the availability of good jobs, decent housing, transport and a sense of secure communities which are shared in common.   

But this observation, while true enough, is hardly novel.  Corbyn repeatedly pointed to what voters in places as diverse as Tottenham and Mansfield shared in common.   But while we made progress in 2017, this frail coalition was unable to survive the storm-force gale of divisions over the proposal of a second Brexit referendum.

In short, much of this collection is either innocuous enough but already familiar to the broad policy ambit of the Party under Corbyn; new but unambitious, sounding like the somewhat retrograde One Nation rhetoric of Ed Milband, or just rather vague.  Mostly, contributors just set out ambitions they would like to see fulfilled, without ever really outlining how this is to be achieved successfully where the last three leaders have failed.    

Michael Calderbank is a contributing editor on Socialist Register.

Image: Vote Labour campaigners. Author: Philafrenzy, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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