Paul Salveson examines the myth of the Northern Labour Heartlands
It’s the Great Red Wall that never was. The idea that huge swathes of the North of England have been rock solid Labour since the world began is a nonsense. It’s true that some constituencies in the North of England, south Wales and the central belt of Scotland had – fleetingly it now seems – very large Labour majorities, but it was patchy. Some Lancashire seats had long traditions of working class Toryism, whilst parts of the West Riding of Yorkshire were traditionally Liberal. Labour’s so-called ‘red wall’ was at best a temporary ‘1945’ phenomenon, taking place amidst a wave of post-war exuberance and hope. Yes, Ken Loach’s film was a great piece of political nostalgia but the idea we can recapture that particular kind of politics is a bit like saying we should revive the Chartist movement of the late 1830s and 1840s (come to think of it…).
Labour’s success under Attlee was down to very specific circumstances which no longer exist. For a start, wars can stimulate rapid change, for better or worse. Labour’s success in 1945 was down to a mobilised working class, determined – after fighting a war against fascism – not to go back to the ’30s. That working class was organised in strong trade unions and bolstered by the co-operative movement and a plethora of institutions which no longer exist, at least in the form that they did. As the traditional industries (mining, steel, textiles) died, so too did the unions based within them. But it was more than that: the communal culture of many working class communities (which had its bad as well as good points) died with it.
So some parts of the North, Scotland and Wales erected a kind of red wall but it was built on shaky foundations. These began to collapse in the 1970s. Many Northern local authorities have fluctuated between Labour and Tory (sometimes Liberal) control over the last few decades; so too parliamentary constituencies. These have included places like Liverpool, Sheffield, Bolton, Kirklees and many others. Labour’s support base has never been as solid as some people, looking back with red-tinted glasses, often think.
But let’s drill down a bit further and ask a few questions about the traditional ‘Labourism’ which did have a base, however exaggerated its hold may have been, in Northern working class communities. It wasn’t the sort of red-blooded socialism which was found in west Fife or the Welsh valleys. It was comfortable in a sort of Wilsonian social democracy which included the NHS, free education, council housing and cheap public transport. To an extent, it was distrustful of ‘the state’ and continued to treat the nationalised industries not as ‘ours’ but ‘theirs’. It was more comfortable with institutions like the Co-op, but never extended the co-operative vision to social ownership. Trades unions were something you had to join; few members were actively engaged.
Perhaps this is a view of my own territory – the former cotton towns of Lancashire. Yes, there was a vibrant socialist culture, stretching back to the late 1890s and expressed through the Independent Labour Party and, to a degree, the Social Democratic Federation. But it was only attractive to a minority of working class people. The relationship with Labour, once it had established itself as a major political force, tended to be instrumental – or ‘transactional’: “We’ll vote for you if you give us council houses, cheap buses, schools and social care.”
By the 1980s Labour councils were less and less able to deliver. Thatcher went on to strip them of more powers, whilst at the same time decimating the industrial working class as it had emerged over the preceding century. Yet Labour clung on to the idea – at both national and local level – that “we can do it for you” when it was becoming increasingly obvious they couldn’t (whatever “it” happened to be).
So where does that leave Labour now? What would make it attractive to working class voters in the misleadingly named ‘red wall’ towns? It’s a very hard question.
I don’t think trying to cloak ourselves in the Union Jack and declare for some pseudo-progressive ‘patriotism’ will get us far. At the same time, we should rid ourselves of some misplaced ideas about ‘the white working class’. It’s much more diverse than a lot of commentators suggest. It contains multitudes, with a wide range of attitudes and opinions. One thing that does unite a lot of people is a belief in ‘democracy’ which is where Labour fell down over calls for a second referendum. It was seen as going against ‘the people’s will’, right or wrong. As someone who voted Remain and reluctantly favoured a second referendum, I have to admit they were right.
To be positive, Labour could do a lot to capture the ‘democratic imagination’, which is really a cross-class thing. Electoral reform, votes for 16-18s and stronger local and regional democracy would help – and be in keeping with socialist values. Labour still has a strong pull on issues like the NHS and protecting the elderly. But I don’t believe Labour’s ‘transformational’ policies on nationalisation cut much ice. Re-discovering Labour’s co-operative heritage and promoting social ownership could find a positive response.
New leader Keir Starmer will have the most difficult job facing a party leader since 1931, and it was only a war that got us out of that mess. A safe pair of hands won’t be enough.