No more Labour Red Walls?

Polarisation into Brexit and Remain broke Labour’s coalition says, Mary Southcott. Now we need a constitutional convention and PR to reassemble common ground

If you had one wish for a replay general election, what to choose? Different leader, EU policy, anti-Semitism or islamophobia, time of year, no rain. What about another voting system, a political culture shift from doing things for people to empowering people to do things together? What did Labour say about democracy? Most people thought democracy was fulfilling the referendum. After finding a way to win the next General Election, let’s move from relying on ‘red walls’ to finding Labour voters everywhere with a PR system.

Paul Mason, from defeated Leigh, wrote: “Once Farage stood down in 317 seats, the only thing that could have stopped the Tories was (a) an electoral pact between progressive parties, (b) an unprecedented turnout by progressive young voters, or (c) massive tactical voting”. None of these happened. Jo Swinson spent as much time vilifying Jeremy as Johnson. We never mentioned Votes at 16. And although the Mirror’s guide to tactical voting would have defeated the Tories, Labour opposition let the voting system triumph. Now some say: “No More Labour prime ministers without progressive pacts and electoral reform”.

Let’s look back to UKIP winning the 2014 European elections. Instead of discovering why some Red Wall ‘working class’ voters were supporting this socially conservative, English nationalist party, we told ourselves that they were taking votes from the Tories, while Lynton Crosby ensured they kept their voters by offering that EU referendum. When the 2015 exit poll gave the Tories a slender majority with the loss of all Labour seats in Scotland, except one, Labour’s first red wall had collapsed. We blamed the Scottish independence referendum but it was just as much about our safe seat mentality.

Straight into the Euro referendum without the aid of a written Constitution which might helpfully have said, what a Labour or Lib Dem opposition might have raised, a threshold of fifty per cent of the electorate or two thirds of votes cast, advisory not mandatory. The 2016 WARP, ‘without all those reading pads’, assumed traditional Labour voters would either vote Brexit or stay at home. We didn’t knock them up. Had we talked with them we might have changed their minds or alerted ourselves to the future. In seats where Labour was, they thought, always going to win – our Red Wall – voters could make a difference, protest at being taken for granted, or blame something and the EU was as good as anything. At last they had an effective vote, to say here I am, have you noticed? Where the industrial revolution begun, Labour voters voted Leave. Did we approach them? Or join in their condemnation?

Regional offices based tactical decisions on polls at the start of the 2017 General Election. This massively warped the work that was being done with people misdirected from seats that were won. Labour’s leadership was fighting for the popular vote as in a PR system. We only have to mention Al Gore or Hilary Clinton to know that wasn’t going to work. Our manifesto was a PR one whereas in a general election the effective voter is an uncertain switcher in a targeted seat who needs constant reassurance while the media play on fears of immigration, crime and national security.

The Labour membership is skewed to the south and policy moved from “Labour heartlands” to university metropolitan cities. Labour’s members in Red Wall constituencies, often untypical Remain voters, didn’t raise Brexit – it would lose votes. The voting system played a canny role, masking the results of Theresa May’s 2017 incursions into Labour territory. Many seats were vulnerable to the 2019 Tory onslaught.

Without a decision on our relationship with the EU, Labour was totally vulnerable. To be successful Labour needs to nurture its link between those who need a Labour government in the way the 2019 manifesto elaborated and those who see the benefit of a more equal society – what we have in common rather than what divides us. Polarised into Leave and People’s Vote broke this coalition.

In 2007, the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform wrote a pamphlet entitled Reversing Labour Retreat [pdf]. We warned about under-registration, over-targeting, boundary changes which the Tories can legitimately implement, the need to endorse voting reform while in government. It is high time Labour acknowledged that its membership is already pro-PR. Of 632 Labour candidates, over a quarter – 163 – were open in their support and 60 went on to be MPs. Make Votes Matter commissioned YouGov research showing that 75% of Labour’s membership supports PR.  

We will be working with extra-parliamentary forces while still being a Westminster response to a rabidly right Tory government. Is there anything – but money – to stop us holding a citizens’ assembly on our democracy or a Constitutional Convention trailed in our manifesto? Couldn’t we join up the dots on English devolution, financing local government, citizenship education, votes at 16, registration, Lords replacement? We need to find space to find anti-Tory consensus, which means working in a non-tribal but assertive way with supporters of other parties also opposed to the Johnson agenda. That is the challenge and to find a leader that understands why our policy going into the next general election has to be PR.

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