Blyth Valley abandoned Labour in December, signalling a trend across the North

Paul Salveson on the challenges of rebuilding the red wall

There’s very little with which to console ourselves following the General Election. Labour did particularly badly in the North of England, and there was little evidence of the progressive vote switching to the Greens, Lib Dems or civic regionalists like the Yorkshire Party. The results can be put down to a number of factors, Brexit being almost certainly the most significant, closely followed by Corbyn’s unpopularity. The correlation between Leave-voting Northern constituencies who have traditionally voted Labour, and those which showed marked swings to the Tories, is too obvious to ignore.

In some places, it could be argued that the other progressive parties helped the Tories win. In my neighbouring constituency, Bolton North East, the Tory had a majority of 337 votes. The Greens picked up a miserly 689 votes and the Lib Dems 1,847. Did they cost the highly respected former shop steward, David Crausby, his seat?

Should the Greens have stood down (as they did in neighbouring marginal Bolton West in 2017)? They’re a legitimate political party with radical and imaginative policies. Labour has done them no favours and stood a candidate against Caroline Lucas in Brighton. The party has been averse to any semblance of pacts or alliances and it could be argued that they got what they deserved. But – to paraphrase Neil Kinnock when he said, “Scargill and Thatcher deserved each other, but the country didn’t deserve either” – the rest of us didn’t deserve to be saddled with an arrogant Tory government that can now act with impunity for at least five years, and maybe longer. The very clear message in England, specifically, is that Labour remains the dominant force in progressive politics and that’s not likely to change very fast. But we need a different sort of Labour Party from what it has become if it is going to recover lost ground.

By the time this issue of Chartist appears, Labour will be in the throes of a leadership campaign which will sap energies but is obviously needed. Politicians like Alan Johnson, many defeated MPs and indeed Tony Blair, are already calling for a return to ‘the centre ground’ to win back the Labour heartlands or rebuild the so-called ‘red wall‘ which has crumbled in the North of England.

I don’t think that’s the answer. Labour needs to be radical but much more inclusive. Working with other progressive forces isn’t just about tactical advantage, it’s showing that you’re a grown-up political force that shies away from tribalism and sectarianism. Yet both characteristics have plagued Labour these last few years. I’m sick to death of hearing people talk about such-and-such being ‘a true socialist’ whilst someone else isn’t, as though socialism is some sort of theological belief and the slightest deviation from the canon risks consigning you to the burning fires of hell.

Alongside a cultural shift within Labour, the party needs to embrace voting reform. The tide has shifted away from traditional binary politics yet the voting system continues to prop up the crumbling edifice. It’s reasonable to assume that a proportional voting system would result in a strong Green presence in Parliament. Small civic regionalists such as the Yorkshire Party might be able to make more headway. It could also mean that fringe right-wing parties win some seats – an argument often used by Labour to oppose PR. But that’s democracy. You don’t oppose the far right by excluding them from the political process.

Many on the pro-Corbyn left will argue that some of Labour’s policies were popular, e.g. rail nationalisation. Yet how radical were Labour’s proposals? Despite rhetoric about ‘new forms of ownership’, what seemed to be on the cards was a very traditional post-1945 model of state ownership. Corbyn’s populist call for a third off rail fares would have caused chaos on a rail system struggling with already-overcrowded trains. It isn’t that wanting fare reductions is wrong – but it needed thinking through in terms of more trains, staff and extra infrastructure. All of which would take years, not a few weeks.

Labour’s manifesto was completely silent on many areas of ‘democratic’ policy. Nothing on PR, nothing about bringing the voting age down and an absence of anything concerning regional devolution, such as making city-region mayors more accountable. Labour under Corbyn seems to accept that the current British political system is the best of all possible worlds. Many would disagree.

Back in 2012 I argued in Socialism with a Northern Accent that Labour needs to address issues around English regional identity and build a politics which is inclusive and radical. We don’t seem to be any nearer that, with some on the left still pursuing the case for an ‘English parliament’ that would further marginalise the North. Why not have devolution within Labour and build a semi-autonomous Northern Labour?

The coming year, including the Labour leadership election but not just that, will hopefully see a flowering of radical ideas which Labour can mould into a progressive politics that chimes with the times. It means accepting Brexit and trying to make the best of what may well be a bad job. But let’s look for opportunities, not obstacles. It also means being much more collaborative, working constructively with other progressive forces including the burgeoning number of non-party movements, often at a very local level.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “Labour’s manifesto was completely silent on many areas of ‘democratic’ policy. Nothing on PR, nothing about bringing the voting age down and an absence of anything concerning regional devolution…”

    This is just wrong. Page 82 of the Labour manifesto refers to decentralising decision-making and promises to make directly elected mayors more accountable. It also promises explicitly to reduce the voting age to 16. https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Real-Change-Labour-Manifesto-2019.pdf

    While it’s undoubtedly true that Labour has been sluggish when it comes to democratic reform, misrepresenting the manifesto like this undermines the cumulative efforts of activists who have fought to win votes on policies such as votes at 16 at successive Conferences.

  2. the sad thing about Paul’s approach is that it is purely focussed on the north. Labour lost Scotland in 2015 and there is still no debate about this. Labour simply does not have any idea why it is losing support in formerly solid areas.

    And Steven is right about the manifesto having some promises about constitutional reform. They made no difference because, as with the lack of swing to minor leftist parties, they were not offering what people wanted. Like it or not, without any discussion of BRexit, which Paul manages one sentence on, discussing the future is futile.

    That Brexit is the elephant in the room which turned into a rogue male is clear. Why is this still, with Corbyn’s lack of electability, still the case?

    Trevor Fisher

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