Labour and working-class voters – what has gone wrong

By Mike Hedges AM

The loss of a large number of working-class constituencies in north Wales, the North of England and the Midlands came as a shock to many as the so-called red wall collapsed. I am looking at four predominantly working-class seats and how the Labour vote has changed since 1997. Any comparison of results in a series of elections comes with the caveat that boundary changes may have taken place along with deaths, movement out of the constituency and young voters coming on to the register, but the general movement can be seen.

 HemsworthStoke CentralDurham North WestLeigh
199732,08826,66231,85531,652
200123,03617,17024,52622,783
200521,63014,76021,31223,097
201020,5061260518,53921,295
201521,77212,22020,07424,312
201725,74017,08325,30826347
201916,46013,88718,84619,301

Labour had an outstanding election result in these constituencies in 1997 but the Labour vote reduced in 2001, 2005 and 2010. Most had a slight increase in 2015 and a big increase in 2017 followed by a collapse in 2019.

Between 1997 and 2019 each constituency saw the vote drop between 40 and 50% of the 1997 figure.

There was a big drop in turnout between 1997 and 2001 from 71.4% to 59.4%. which had a slight recovery in 2017 before reducing again in 2019.

The Conservatives’ vote in 2019 increased to 13,905,520 votes, up from 13,636,684 in 2017 or by 269,000 voters. Labour’s total was 10,282,632 in 2019 so their vote dropped from 12,878,460 in 2017, a loss of 2,595,828.

From these figures we see that the 2019 general election was not about large numbers of previous Labour voters voting Conservative but about large numbers of previous Labour voters not voting.

Different people will have views on the cause of the two large drops in the Labour vote. I believe the drop in 2001 was due to people being disappointed with the 1997-2001 Labour government. The drop between 2017 and 2019, I believe, was down to Labour not honouring the Brexit referendum result.

Interestingly, 1997 and 2001 had Tony Blair as Leader whilst 2017 and 2019 had Jeremy Corbyn as Leader.

What has happened over the last 25 years is that the Labour Party has not addressed voter concerns and appeared irrelevant to their lives. Most importantly, Labour is no longer seen as on their side.

Labour needs to build council and other social housing to reduce housing pressure and support the real living wage which is higher than the UK government national living wage. It must end exploitative contracts and ban fire and rehire. These are issues affecting working people and their families every day.

What do most people want? A nice house, a job, adequate pay, no fear of debt and opportunities for their children. We need to address these desires in the language of the electorate whom we are trying to communicate with. People’s political views are based upon personal experience, family political loyalty and perception of political parties often gained from ‘friends’ on social media.

For many their personal experiences are

  • Difficulty of getting social housing either personally or for family members.
  • The need to pay very high rents to private property owners.
  • Lack of employment prospects.
  • Zero hour or very few guaranteed hours contracts at the national minimum wage.
  • Debt or the fear of debt.
  • Fear of wage cuts via fire and rehire or reduction in hours.
  • Being victims of austerity with low if any wage increases and facing the increased cost of energy and food.

What has Labour done wrong with working class voters?

  • Do not engage enough with them and address the issues that matter to them.
  • Our ‘good communicators’ do not communicate with them.
  • Do not address their concerns about issues affecting their lives.
  • Appear irrelevant to their lives.
  • Most importantly, Labour is no longer seen as on their side.

How do we win them back?

Address their concerns: they are real, which is why so many voted for Brexit and support leaving the European Union.

Build council and other social housing, thus reducing the housing pressure, meaning that young people can get good affordable housing.

Support the ‘real’ living wage, not the Tories’ increased minimum wage called the living wage. End zero hour and near zero-hour contracts. Make fire and rehire illegal with substantial fines or companies that engage in it.

We can win former Labour voters back, but we will not do so by doing the same as before and ignoring what they want and need.

Mike Hedges is the member of the Welsh Senedd for Swansea East.

Image: Mike Hedges. Author: Steve Cushen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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