Part 1: Go Big or Go Home
By the time St Ives had declared as the final seat in the December 2019 UK General Election, the post-mortem into Labour’s fourth consecutive loss had begun. Jeremy Corbyn had already announced in the early hours of the morning of 13th December that he would indeed stand down as Labour leader after overseeing the party’s worst performance since 1935 (now confirmed for early April). For critics of Corbyn, the brutal rejection by voters in historically strong Labour northern towns vindicated four years of criticisms over his leadership of the party internally and nationally.
The electoral map of 2019 presents a stark image for Labour. Gone is the heralded Red Wall of the north. Gone too is the red swathe across the Midlands that propelled Tony Blair to victory in 1997. Even former bellwether seats such as Dartford in North Kent appear to now be firmly in the Tory column, going from a Labour majority of 706 in 2005 to 19,160 in 2019 for the Conservatives. The Labour party has built its support from traditional industrial heartlands (both urban and rural) in the north of England, the Midlands and Wales to include much of London, attempting to include ideologue socialists and urban liberals and across various regional, economic and social divides. That picture has now changed drastically, and the election results represent a serious challenge to Labour, but also the Conservatives. Both are determined to rebuild themselves in order to respond to these results.
For supporters of Corbyn, it was a case of blaming anyone but Corbyn; from external media coverage to internal Blairites, from the voters themselves – be they Leavers or Remainers – to opposition party tactics designed to split the vote and uproot Labour’s roots. As the short-term shock gives way to more pragmatic considerations, it is clear that seats like Bolsover neither ‘turn Conservative’ overnight nor despatch party stewards of nearly 40 years like Dennis Skinner, unless there are key underlying issues. So while the post-mortem of Labour’s electoral catastrophe and the choice of a new leader are the party’s chief tasks, the goal must be to abjure simplistic, short-term take-aways and instead face up to the challenge of remapping the party, its role in opposition, particularly in regards to Brexit planning and its role in 21st century Britain.
Buddy, Can You Spare an Election?
On the face of it, the 2019 General Election will go down as the ‘Brexit Election’, echoing other such symbolic elections including Ted Heath’s ‘Who runs Britain?’ in 1974, and Clement Atlee’s social revolutionary government in 1945 in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The core narrative of the election – that of a conclusive outcome regarding Brexit – seems now to have been driven by the relentless Conservative campaign’s core message of ‘get Brexit done’.
The double-barrelled backdrop of long-winded negotiations with the EU throughout 2016-2018 and Parliamentary impasses throughout 2019 under both Prime Ministers May and Johnson, added to the impenetrable attempt by Labour to arrive at a definitive and persuasive Brexit message created a perfect storm for Conservative and Labour voters alike: an unholy trinity in which party allegiances faded temporarily against the sharper contours of angry Leavers and disenchanted Remainers. The 2016 Referendum returned a knife-edge decision with plenty of subsequent buyer’s remorse, but ultimately the Conservative-Leave campaign appears to have capitalised on general disaffection with handling of the entire Brexit issue. By December 2019, local anger at austerity-era living standards was simply focused on Brexit as the obstacle to national recovery, regardless of which voters suffered most under such austerity policies, or which government had put and kept them in place.
Consequently, in desperation to get to – and past Brexit – Labour Leave voters in northern towns felt able to break with tradition which in some places represented the voting preferences of more than a century and the inclinations of great, great grandparents, and ‘lent’ their vote to the Conservatives. The emphasis here needs to be placed on lend. For Labour voters, the question of loaned votes is naturally focused upon the length of the loan, the terms of its lending, and the proposed dividend. Boris Johnson should by no means believe that the 2019 General Election represents a sudden realignment of voter bases. Labour voters want bang for their loaned buck.
The Prime Minister will need to work hard to ensure that these voters continue to believe in a party that now genuinely represents seats such as Darlington and Don Valley alongside picturesque southern towns of Winchester and affluent locales like Sevenoaks. On the face of it, it is difficult to see how a working-class steel worker in Scunthorpe can feel represented by a party that traditionally oriented at southern, metropolitan, middle and upper-middle class demographics. The onus is now on the Conservatives to recast their party as a government of national unity – ironically out-Labouring the Labour party’s own attempt to share power to get over the intractable nature of Brexit. Doing so means not merely paying lip-service to national unity by redrafting Tory commitment to Labour-dominated issues like the NHS and education, but tackling regional challenges including rail and local government devolution to help the party permanently invest rather than temporarily harvest Labour votes. Failing to do so will see scores of newly-blue areas return home.
Red Wall, Blue Collar: 21st Century Conservatism
Two articles popped up in The Telegraph the week after the election, one by Conservative MP and Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Esther McVey, the other by William Hague, now Baron Hague of Richmond, inter alia Leader of the Opposition, Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House.
McVey asserted that having launched ‘Blue Collar Conservatism” in January 2019, the election was a foregone conclusion. Its overarching rationale was simply the “strong sense of betrayal” felt by “by the political and media class to accept the result of the EU referendum”. McVey suggests that this betrayal was felt strongly enough by scores of former Labour voters to abandon at a stroke their “ideological commitment to failed socialist policies” and support instead the Conservative party as “the party of all the regions; the party of working people for working people”. At first blush, current trends suggest exactly this. But a closer reading suggests that the motivations, and the consequences, are rather more complex. Hague argues more credibly that “landslides can come and go, but it is not often you witness the deepest bedrock of a party’s support being shattered.” Brexit itself, while a formidable variable, makes for an uneasy scapegoat in explaining the collapse of the red wall. In Hague’s view, the long-term erosion of Labour’s own party identity is the cause: “it has taken 30 years for these most loyal of voters to turn against Labour”, citing discontent with immigration, a “drift to extremism” and deep disappointment over Brexit for both Remainers and Leavers. He could also (more persuasively) have added a clear erosion of socialist ideology in both its rural and urban guises, and north and London variants, as well as their persistently lacklustre opposition to a whole range of Tory strategies from austerity to immigration.
Hague is however right that 2019 represents for the Tories “a victory that is both more far-reaching and fragile than any of recent decades.” The onus is first upon the Conservatives to push forward on fruitful objectives of boosting Northern infrastructure, investment and skills rather than McVey’s suggestion that a vote for the Conservatives – loaned or otherwise – is a vote for “unashamed British patriotism;… the party of world-class public services”. The onus is secondly upon Labour to reconnect viably, not superficially, with their extensive spectrum of voters who feel ideologically abandoned, materially dispossessed, or politically disenfranchised, or all three.
Like many other Conservatives, Hague espouses a two-pronged approach to ensure loaned Labour votes don’t produce an equally massive swing in the opposite direction at the next election: a revival of Northern towns and regions, and a huge boost to the infrastructure that connects them. Investing in transport, employment and skills is hardly a new idea, nor one necessarily that the Conservatives can make fly on their own.
Local Government : the Missing Link?
There is an obvious missing piece of the puzzle, which observers need to look more carefully for… something that links both the potential of Northern regeneration, promises to the south, and the general tenor of Brexit as a whole: increased powers for local governments. We haven’t heard much about it yet, but one of the most persistent refrains on both sides of the Brexit debate was the concept of enhanced local and regional autonomy. Amid the cacophony of “take back control” was lost a key irony: that while Britain may struggle to genuinely regain supremacy of its laws, sovereignty and finances, as these are indelibly interdependent within the legal, political, institutional, economic and financial structures of its European neighbours and global partners, it may regain a measure of control at the local government level.
As I’ll be exploring further this year, local government is focused on two things: winning power in the tug-of-war with Westminster, and boosting their budgets. The 2019 election manifestos were starkly different in terms of the money on offer to local government. Labour allocated large increases to counter rising costs, services and provisions with no plans to freeze council taxes, while the Lib Dems budgeted just enough but on the basis of a 2% increase. Worryingly, the Conservatives failed to allocate anywhere near enough to meet local government’s rising costs across the next parliament, even factoring in a 4% increase in council tax, suggesting further attrition of services or foreseen bail outs.
The parties were largely circumspect on both ideas and details for enhanced power for local authorities during the election campaign. The Conservative manifesto however went beyond the generic pledge to “devolving power to people and places across the UK”, with its ambition “for full devolution across England” and the promise of an English Devolution White Paper.
Media coverage of Conservative promises to boost Northern
industry in the days following the election however suggest that enhanced
autonomy for regional and local government would form a key part of “project
North”. In practical terms, the Conservatives will rely directly upon local
governments, not merely to implement the vast majority of their grand
multi-billion infrastructure projects, but to carry out even mid-range
improvements to the daily grind of local provision, from health and social
care, to transport, education, housing and universal credit. Crumbling
cash-strapped local governments make poor partners, so the Conservatives need
to think more carefully about who is going to deliver in the North (and the
south), and how. The Tory MP for Mansfield, Ben Bradley’s observation is
prescient: “We may be saying the right things but we are not trusted. The proof
will be in the delivery; in showing whose side we are on.” Local government is
the chief agent in this equation.
 Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto, “Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential”, 2019, p. 29.