North and Midlands have a second referendum
by Peter Latham
What has happened is so clear, even allowing for interpretation. In one Labour seat after another many voters deserted their own party to hit back against the neglect of their vital interests, and even their very existence. High profile losses crossed the political spectrum in Labour: Dennis Skinner was beaten in Bolsover, Caroline Flint in Don Valley, Laura Smith in Crewe and Nantwich, Laura Pidcock in Durham North West, and Mary Creagh in Wakefield. Other Labour seats went Tory in Burnley, Blackpool, Bolton, Bury, Derby North, Dewsbury, Dudley North, Great Grimsby, Keighley, Lincoln, Rother Valley, Scunthorpe, Sedgefield, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton and Workington.
Despite the Brexit Party snapping at Labour’s heels in many seats, the Conservatives offered a quick Leave and benefitted massively. Trouble brewed early in the north-east. A week before the EU referendum in June 2016, 25 of the regions 26 Labour MP’s signed an open letter to the Northern Echo calling for people to vote to Remain in the EU (1). Only Ronnie Campbell, MP for Blyth Valley, did not sign it. He stood down at the 2017 general election.
In 2016 on a high turnout, people voted to leave the European Union. In 2017, promising to respect the result of the referendum, Labour’s vote exceeded expectations. By 2019, Labour was facing both ways. Working class voters turned away from Labour en masse in a conscious effort to resolve the Brexit crisis themselves in their own interests.
The 2019 Labour Conference had decided to extend voting rights to EU nationals resident in Britain. It was a serious error for Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Shadow Business Secretary, to speak up for this idea a week before polling day.
The Shadow Cabinet were warned. Last June, after the local elections, the European elections, and the Peterborough by-election, 26 Labour MP’s from Leave-voting constituencies wrote to Jeremy Corbyn to urge backing for a Leave deal before the 31st October. They stated clearly that “a commitment to a second referendum would be toxic to our bedrock labour voters, driving a wedge between them and our Party, jeopardising our role as a Party of the whole nation and giving the populist right an even greater platform in our heartlands.” To no avail. Back in March, Stephanie Peacock, MP for Barnsley East, a Remainer and one of the 26, had resigned as a Labour whip to be free to vote against a second referendum. It did some good as she was re-elected, albeit with a reduced majority.
Before the election was called, the anti-austerity message was on the back foot compared with 2017. Confusion reigned. Do I vote Tory to come out of the EU, or vote Labour for a better life? I want both. It was palpable when canvassing. There were other factors too. In Barnsley for instance Jeremy Corbyn had almost no personal support outside activist circles. People did not say why. But he does not sound or look like someone from the north or midlands. Many voters just wrote him off as another London do-gooder. For such a decent leader, with the best politics in decades and a mass following in some circles, this a great shame, but it must be faced.
The campaign sagged as the leadership made one radical announcement after another, but without insistent explanation that the economy would stand it and prosper. The message became blurred and less credible, while proposals were plucked like rabbits out of a hat, seemingly unrelated to an overall approach. It became clear when canvassing that this was a mistake, as many people simply did not believe that these things could be afforded. Fewer radical proposals, but better argued with the economic need for them repeatedly spelt out, would have been better.
Here lies a lesson: since the 2008 crash people have been deliberately misled by the establishment. The Government budget has been spoken of as if it were similar to the performance of the productive economy. The bankers were bailed out and the price tag appeared in the government’s balance sheet as a cost, hence the “need” for austerity. The earlier public understanding that corporate and private wealth, the economic base, should be taxed to provide a social superstructure in health, housing, education, social care and transport etc has become so eroded as to be outside the experience of younger voters. It is hard to persuade people coping with their own debt that the Government should borrow to build council houses for example, never mind that this was how it was done before in worse conditions. People are having difficulty seeing a future beyond austerity in the media blizzard. Yet Labour’s proposals are feasible and to our benefit.
DEFEATS AND SUCCESS
Ironically, Blyth Valley was the first to go Conservative on election night, by only 612 votes. Of 60 seats lost by Labour, 45 were in the midlands and the north. All 45 without exception voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. The bigger the Leave majority, the more voters abandoned Labour, according to a Financial Times analysis.
However, the large Labour majorities in city constituencies are worth noting. Paul Blomfield in Sheffield Central has a majority of 27, 612 over his Conservative runner-up. He is a Remainer in a Leave-voting area. Gill Furness for Sheffield Hillsborough and Brightside has a majority of 12,274 over the Conservative. In Leeds North West, Alex Sobel, who supports EU integration, more than doubled his majority to 10,649, while Hilary Benn in Leeds Central, also for Remain, won a majority of 19,270 over the Conservative. Richard Burgon (Leeds East), a Corbyn supporter who supports more EU integration, polled a reduced majority of 5,531 over the Conservative. In Newcastle-upon-Tyne two of the four seats retained Labour majorities of well over 10,000.
Labour did well in Liverpool, where “the city once again bucked national trends and the party’s vote held strong” (2). Three new Labour MP’s were elected, Kim Johnson being the city’s first black MP with a majority of 37,043 in Riverside. Dan Carden in Walton has a majority of 30,520; in Wavertree, Paula Barker has 27,085, while in West Derby Ian Byrne has 29,974. All four backed Jeremy Corbyn strongly, saying that the focus on nationalisation, the NHS and schools resonated with voters. Only Maria Eagle for Garston and Halewood, a Corbyn critic, had doubts. Her majority is 31,624.
Over in Manchester, Labour majorities were also high: in Central 29,089; in Gorton 30,339; in Withington 28,005; in Blackley and Broughton 14,302; and in Wythenshaw and Sale East 10,396. Labour retained Birmingham with big majorities. In Hall Green, Tahir Ali has 28,508; in Hodge Hill, Liam Byrne has 29,655; in Ladywood, Shabana Mahmood has 28,582. Three other Labour MP’s have majorities over 10,000.
LABOUR NOT FINISHED
Labour is certainly not finished on these figures as some pretend. Many millions have voted for the radical manifesto. It has mass appeal, especially where good local candidates are coming forward. This is a good start for the future.
The Labour vote has done better in the big cities than in smaller former coalfield and industrial towns. The reasons for this need careful thought, as the Blairite tendency is exploiting this question to suit their agenda. Some may give city-based regeneration the credit for this, but with wealth failing to trickle down to the poor other factors should be considered.
Radical thought can flourish more easily in cities, but in towns and ex-mining villages with less industry conservative feelings may persist amongst working class people. A way forward here must be found. Community and trade union work by supporters of Labour’s manifesto offers hope.
In spite of everything the good voters of the north and midlands have given the ruling classes of Britain and corporate Europe the biggest kick in the teeth in recent history. They have done it with consistency and determination, whatever the cost on other questions, and done it on their own initiative without much help from organised labour, the trade unions, most Labour party activists, and the Shadow Cabinet. This a remarkable fact.
An analogy: the military in combat have orders to “attack at all costs”. Voters have done something similar.
(1) www.thenorthernecho.co.uk 16 June 2016
(2) www.liverpoolecho.co.uk Nick Tyrrell, 13 December 2019