A decade ago, the writer Julian Baggini used demographic data to pinpoint the heart of England, before moving there to write a book about it – Welcome to Everytown. He ended up living in Bramley, in the South Yorkshire constituency of Wentworth and Dearne that I am so proud to represent.
Wentworth and Dearne has never before been a must-watch seat but after the 2019 election mine is now the most marginal constituency in the shadow cabinet. Today the Fabian Society publishes a report drawing on the perspectives of MPs like me, who represent former Labour heartland seats that have all been used to majorities of well over 10,000 and are now Labour’s new marginals.
Despite the narrow margins, we all made it through the dreadful 2019 election for Labour. So we can speak up for our areas, confront the failings of Conservative ministers and challenge our own party to get to grips with the public loss of belief in Labour as a party fit for government. We have a duty as MPs who are still in parliament to do this, when many colleagues from similar seats across the country – from Workington to Wakefield, Bolsover to Bridgend, Sedgefield to Stoke-on-Trent – cannot.
Hearts and Minds: winning the working class vote brings together contributions from Tracy Brabin, Yvette Cooper, Jon Cruddas, Yvonne Fovargue, Emma Hardy, Dan Jarvis, Abena Oppong-Asare, Taiwo Owatemi, Toby Perkins, Bridget Phillipson, Jonathan Reynolds, Nick Thomas-Symonds. Ours are constituencies with a high proportion of working-class voters, in all their diversity. The starting point for our publication is that Labour cannot take for granted even the seats we hold, and to win again the party needs to rebuild its connection with working-class voters in every corner of the UK.
My brief to contributors was to ground their chapter in their understanding of the lives, values and sentiments of their constituents; to focus on Labour’s standing in the eyes of local people rather than the specifics of future policy. The dimensions of Labour’s 2019 election defeat have been analysed in detail for more than a year and I want to help shift the focus to the future, to developing the relationships, communications and values we must re-establish in order to win back trust and support.
Some of the chapters are hard-hitting in describing the dislocation between Labour and many long-time supporters who feel Labour left them before they left Labour. Together the contributions confirm how much Labour must do, with the challenge lying less in policy and more in public sentiment and perceptions about who we are.
Our enduring Labour commitments to equity, social justice and rights for all have for many voters become loaded by the belief that resources, services or opportunities are all so limited that for someone to gain someone else must lose. If society is simply seen as a zero-sum game, then resentments and divisions grow more readily. Common purpose and shared interests are harder to establish. People have seen the Conservatives fan social divisions by staging ‘culture war’ rows, and before the 2019 election Labour kept walking straight into these political traps.
Expectations of Labour are consistently higher than of the Conservatives. Those who feel let down by Labour describe at best an unwillingness to listen, with no respect for their experience, and at worst a rejection of their views as ignorant or backward.
Brexit was both an effect of the dislocation between Labour and traditional working-class communities and a cause of further disillusion as Leave areas – including many people who voted Remain – came to believe that the party did not respect the democratic decision of the referendum.
However, the erosion of Labour’s working-class electoral support pre-dates both the 2019 election and the 2016 referendum. We lost 87 seats to the Tories in 2010 and 8 in 2015; 83% of these constituencies – 79 of the 95 – went on to vote Leave. Even in 2017, when Labour gained a total of 30 seats overall, the Tories took six constituencies from us – all were Leave-voting seats in 2016, with an average of 67% voting for leave.
As Labour has lost these Commons seats to Conservative MPs over the last decade, there has rarely been any automatic bounce-back in the Labour vote; rather these constituencies have mostly moved further from us at subsequent elections and a loss of Labour council control has often also followed.
So any electoral strategy simply directed at ‘Red Wall’ seats Labour lost in 2019 misses this longer-run trend and deeper damage to Labour. A year into Keir Starmer’s new leadership, Labour has made real progress in re-establishing a serious claim to be considered an alternative government. This is a sound basis to build on, but this collection underlines the scale of the task still ahead, a reality that Keir is the first to recognise and stress to his frontbench team.
For me, Labour’s priority must be Britain’s real middle: not the middle class that became New Labour’s fixation, nor simply the poorest for whom Labour will always care deeply but who in recent years we’ve given the impression are our sole concern. The median annual earnings for all employees is just £24,908 and it is the ten million on ordinary working incomes either side of this average that should be Labour’s core constituency and central political concern. These workers – employed and self-employed – are the backbone of our economy and heart of our public services. Many are Britain’s essential workers, as our experience through the Covid crisis has shown.
As the Fabian report explains, a swathe of working-class and average-income voters have been moving away from Labour for the last four or five elections, first in southern new towns and now in the North and Midlands.
Our challenge is profound but can be simply stated: to convince those who voted Conservative in recent elections to go with Labour next time. I hope this collection of insightful and inspiring chapters from MPs in Labour’s new marginals will contribute to this mission.
Hearts and Minds: winning the working-class vote is published by the Fabian Society today.