Cold wind from the North

Paul Salveson on a different, more complex reality of northern working class

The May local elections, followed by the European vote, produced results which can be claimed as justification for parties ranging from the Brexit Party to the Lib Dems and Greens. What is very obvious is that the UK as a whole is more divided than ever, with Brexit acting as a deeply corrosive force in our politics. Commentators continue to focus on a simplistic north/south divide, with the stereotyping of ‘Northern Labour Voters’ as pro-Brexit and increasingly right wing. Yet reality is quite different and far more complex.

Probably the most noticeable differences opening up in British politics are north of the border where the SNP’s hegemony seems unassailable. But let’s look at England. The Brexit mess is a problem made in England, by English Tory politicians, aided and abetted by UKIP, nurtured by an English media. Support for Brexit played on the fears and disappointments of ‘the left behind’ in the old industrial English towns, as well as the prejudices of Tory ‘middle England’. In my home town, Bolton, there was a large majority for Leave and I suspect if there was another referendum that wouldn’t change much. Whether most of these ‘leavers’ are disillusioned Labour supporters is less clear. I suspect that many who voted Leave in towns like Bolton might once have been strong Labour voters but had stopped voting for anyone in recent years. Labour’s membership is much more strongly Remain, reflecting the shift in Labour’s make-up in the North to more of an alliance between the professional white middle class and the established Asian communities. But the picture is immensely varied.

Looking at the local election results across the North, there isn’t much satisfaction for Labour. There were some successes, not least in West Yorkshire where Labour won Calderdale and strengthened its position in Kirklees. In Bolton, the picture was very different with Labour losing control to a minority Tory administration supported by several smaller parties. The reasons behind that are interesting and relevant to British politics generally.

In the past I’ve commented on the neglect of small former industrial towns like Farnworth, a former mill town which was incorporated into Bolton Metropolitan Borough in the 1970s. Once proud Farnworthians saw their town’s industries collapse and their own local authority (which had a magnificent record in housing, as well as in other areas) disappear. Nearly two years ago I wrote in Chartist that places like Farnworth, sooner or later, will rise in revolt. That’s exactly what has happened, with Farnworth and Kearsley First (F&KF) now having five council seats and effectively acting as power-brokers with new sister party Horwich and Blackrod First, which won two. Labour has tried to dismiss these groups as ‘small town Tories’, demonstrated by their support for the new Tory administration. Yet they have won huge support in towns that once voted solidly Labour.

The success of F&KF, and an increasing number of ‘hyper-local’ parties across England, is telling us something that’s really quite important. David Goodhart, in People from Somewhere (2017) argued that a growing divide in British politics was between ‘people from nowhere’ and ‘people from somewhere’. The latter, perhaps simplistically, he identified as largely Leave voters whilst the ‘people from nowhere’ were relaxed at being ‘European’ or ‘citizens of the world’ who obviously voted Remain.

This sense of local, and in some cases regional, identity is something that Labour no longer feels comfortable with. It wasn’t always thus. The old ILP was very proud of its multiple local and regional identities, which could mix well in a party that had bases across Britain. I realise I’m on very subjective ground here, but from my experience, the working class (not only its white ethnicities) has kept a strong sense of local identity whilst the middle class has largely lost it. It is more geographically mobile and simply doesn’t ‘get’ why people would go out and vote for the likes of Farnworth and Kearsley First, or for that matter The Yorkshire Party.

Can Labour win back its position as the champion of English working class communities? I think it will struggle, but it is lucky in not having much opposition. Over the Pennines in Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Party is making modest inroads in Labour strongholds (though it fell short of its hopes of getting an MEP elected). It was great to see the Greens doing so well but they really don’t get local identity politics, though they should be better ideologically equipped to do so than Labour. The Lib Dems have been slow at really embracing localism despite their historic commitment to decentralism. Mr Goodhart would say that most Greens and Liberals are classic ‘people from nowhere’ – but some of my friends would differ.

So we’ll see more ‘hyper-local’ politics which may cripple Labour’s hold on some councils. England has yet to really see the emergence of dynamic, forward-looking regionalist parties which could complement their localist sisters, but potentially it could become a powerful force that could complement developments in Wales and Scotland.

Paul Salveson

Paul Salveson is a visiting professor in transport & logistics at the University of Huddersfield.