Paul Salveson on red walls, heartlands and Labour dilemmas
There seems to be a renewed surge of interest in Labour’s ‘Northern discomfort’. It follows on from the party conference season with Labour in Brighton and the Tories in Manchester. Maybe that in itself says something, with the Tories keen to promote their ‘levelling up’ agenda in the North. Coinciding with all that is the publication of Sebastian Payne’s Broken Heartlands – a journey through Labour’s lost England. Gateshead-born Payne is a journalist on the FT; a canny lad who writes well and has a good questioning brain. Payne cites the major structural changes that have taken place in Britain which disproportionately impacted on Labour’s support. The loss of highly-unionised industries such as coal, steel and textiles meant that Labour’s traditional base ceased to exist, as Blair recognised and responded to. Now it has retreated, in England, into becoming the political expression of metropolitan professionals and a shrinking public sector workforce. There is a major gulf between Labour activists and ‘the general public’ which became most apparent around Brexit and in the general dislike of Corbyn, which comes across strongly in Payne’s book. Many on the left are still in denial about the scale of loathing towards Corbyn. Time is taken up debating issues which most people don’t give a toss about.
At the same time, some on the left remain puzzled by Johnson’s popularity. How could an old Etonian buffoon win the support of large swathes of northern working class voters? Part of me shares that bewilderment, but I can see his laid-back, shambolic showmanship going down well in pubs on Bolton’s Halliwell Road.
Sebastian Payne is aware of the importance of ‘place’ and it’s refreshing that he not only visits and talks to people in towns like Burnley, Dronfield and Middleton, but doesn’t lump them all together as being all the same ‘up North’ towns. There are big differences within a shared Northern identity. However, he struggles with questions of local identity and is far too sympathetic to city mayors. His interview with Andy Burnham quotes uncritically Burnham’s view that there is a strong ‘Greater Manchester’ identity. There isn’t. There are strong ‘Manchester’, ‘Bolton’, ‘Rochdale’ and other town identities, but Burnham is kidding himself if he thinks that many people see themselves as ‘Greater Mancunians’. In towns like Bolton, Wigan and Bury, quite a few people actually loathe the idea and remain doggedly attached to being ‘Lancashire’ – as well as Boltonian, Rochdalian etc. Older people go along with ‘Greater Manchester’ in a purely instrumental way (for the bus pass!) but that’s as far as it goes.
For the Labour Party, the Tories’ continuing success in the North presents seemingly insoluble problems. Starmer has not won ‘hearts and minds’ in the towns that Payne visited for his Broken Heartlands book. While he lauds Neil Kinnock’s emphasis on promoting Labour as the party of ‘security’, I don’t think that’s enough. That needs to be linked with a pride in place. Towns like Bolton, Burnley, Rochdale and Middleton, which had civic pride in bucket loads with fine buildings to make that tangible, don’t want to be dreary suburbs of Manchester with boarded-up shops and homeless people on every street corner.
Could there be a non-Labour alternative to Tory supremacy in the so-called former ‘red wall’ constituencies? The Lib Dems and Greens show no sign of making an electoral breakthrough in the North as a whole and their support is essentially drawn from a similar demographic to that of present-day Labour’s. The Yorkshire Party and the more recent Northern Independence Party struggle with the unfair electoral system.
In some smaller towns there is a growing sense of anger at apparent marginalisation by the larger towns and cities – a result of the local government reforms of the 1970s. Many well-run councils (mostly with Labour administrations) were merged into larger authorities at the same time that mills and factories were closing. The revolt was a long time coming but it is here now. In Bolton alone, there are small ‘hyper-local’ independent parties in the satellite towns of Farnworth, Horwich and Westhoughton, with strong council representation that led to Labour losing control. While Labour likes to stigmatise all these groups as ‘local UKIPs’, in reality many of the activists are exactly the sort of person you’d once have found in Labour ward meetings but don’t any more.
The impact of the ‘hyper-local’ parties on parliamentary politics has yet to be felt. The small town identities don’t sit well with most constituency boundaries. However, if they got their acts together and formed alliances with neighbouring independents, they could present a challenge to the mainstream parties.
Of course, Labour could learn from the experience of ‘identity politics’ in Scotland and particularly Wales where Labour continues to do well. But it needs to be based around a strong local and regional identity, with imaginative economic, social and environmental policies. The state of town centres is one of the biggest issues that people cite when they moan on social media about what a shithole their town has become. It doesn’t have to be so, and there is scope for transforming town centres, large and small, instead of leaving them to rot. There are good examples to learn from within the UK.