Bryn Jones reviews recent surveys of why Labour lost many traditional seats in 2019
Did long-time Labour-supporting communities ditch Labour for the Tories because of Brexit, or Corbyn’s media image? Or was it slower burning trends of declining industrial jobs and trade union traditions, and New Labour’s lack of interest in ‘Old Labour’ communities and interests? More fundamentally, does class no longer shape voter behaviour, and is that because the working class has dissolved? One note of caution, not fully acknowledged by commentators, is that ex-industrial, ex-Labour constituencies are not necessarily homogenous ’working class’ communities. As this review shows, this equivalence is partly assumed, with misleading conclusions, in the texts reviewed here. From different parts of the political spectrum these authors are: Financial Times ‘Whitehall editor’ Sebastian Payne; New Labour strategist, and now senior Starmer aide, Deborah Mattinson; and New Left Review editor Tom Hazeldine.
Payne took a wide-angle tour of ten of these constituencies. Ex-New Labour strategist Mattinson used the microscope of local focus groups in three seats. Hazeldine’s broader historical approach locates the upheaval within a much longer evolution of the North-South divide, using data from published reports and contrasts between long-time Labour seats that voted differently in 2019. These authors’ findings will resonate well with the beliefs of their respective audiences amongst the political classes. However, as a political sociologist, and despairing Labour supporter, my question was whether their approaches and methods warrant their conclusions.
In Broken Heartlands Payne asked whether the cause of Labour’s defeats was a “confluence of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn”, or by “a structural change in how England votes”; i.e. a combination of socio-economic change and shifts in popular attitudes: from party loyalism to more individualistic lifestyles and instrumental voting. He questioned very few actual voters. In his ten constituencies, which ranged from clusters of semi-rural settlements to towns linked to bigger cities, voters’ opinions are outweighed by those of ministers, ex-ministers, shadow ministers, MPs, ex-MPs and pundits. His conclusion: the Tory surge came from longer-term trends catalysed by Labour’s anti-Brexit stance and negative perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn: as an out-of-touch, unbelievable spendthrift and unpatriotic friend of terrorist threats to national security.
Payne’s interviews were seemingly random and not selected for class, gender or ethnicity. Only about nine of his total of 26 local respondents seemed to have worked either in middle-ranking white collar or manual jobs. Each constituency’s sparse voter views are topped up with celebrity politicians’ opinions: Norman Tebbit, Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Neil Kinnock, John McDonnell, Ed Miliband, to name but a few. Most of these and related pundits have little or no connection with the place analysed. Instead, Payne uses a topic raised in the constituency to bring them in. The ethnic dimension is tangentially mentioned by an ex-UKIP councillor in Burnley, where a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner was flown over the football stadium. When ethnic issues are seriously considered for Coventry North West, this facilitates a detour into pages of opinions from current Tory health minister, and suburban Bromsgrove MP, Sajid Javid, and inner-city, Tottenham MP and shadow justice minister David Lammy. A Coventry imam – one of only five Asians mentioned in the whole book – was a firm supporter of Jeremy Corbyn – the ex-leader’s only favourable mention by any local. However, the ethnic significance of this support is not pursued. Nor are comparisons between Asian and white voters’ views. Yet five of the Red Wall seats Labour retained have “significant ethnic minority populations”.
Top Starmer advisor Mattinson posed four questions: who exactly are ex-Labour, Red Wall voters; what matters to them; why did they switch from Labour to the Tories; and how might they vote in future? Her main source is, supposedly, conversational focus groups in Darlington, Hyndburn (Accrington) and Stoke-on-Trent, supplemented by opinion polls, electoral statistics and her polling company’s studies. Focus groups can provide deeper insights but social scientists emphasise their limitations. Without repeat samples from the same population their representativeness is dubious. More importantly, a ‘band wagon’ effect can develop within a group. Forceful expression of a distinctive or familiar argument by a more opinionated or vocal group member inclines others to support it – either because their own ideas are ill-formed, or because it’s easier to conform to an apparent consensus. (For a further critique, see Paul Lefley’s review in the Morning Star.)
Mattinson’s focus groups give more insights than Payne’s random interviews, but their accuracy as barometers of the range of working class views is dubious. These recent ‘switchers’ from Labour to Conservative (an essential selection criterion) were not compared to new or loyal Labour voters, nor to abstaining ex-Labour ones. The participants were meant to be working class voters from socio-occupational groups C2, D and E: manual, routine and unskilled jobs, and unemployed. Unfortunately, C2 is a very elastic category of worker. It extends far from the conventional factory hand, cleaner or building worker. Mattinson stretches the definition further, blurring close to ‘C1’ professional and managerial grades. Her first protagonist, Accrington plumber Ian, like other respondents, is self-employed. Most plumbers run their own businesses. To fit heating systems they must pass stringent written, competence tests requiring abstract technical knowledge. Such skilled workers are relatively well-paid. Unlike Mattinson’s, more sophisticated social class models distinguish according to financial (in)security and assets, like house ownership. One much-quoted participant, Michelle from Accrington, owns a café. Occupation classification alone is insufficient to capture class status.
The chapters on the economy, leadership and patriotism also mix Red Wall groups’ opinions with voters from other localities, including Brexit ‘citizens juries’ conducted for the Starmerite Labour Together and Blairite Progress groups. These additions submerge the Red Wall focus and Mattinson’s own political views surface. Summarising a confused diversity of views on the Blairite legacy, she baldly proclaims that Labour will not “overcome its deep-rooted negatives without some kind of rehabilitation of its most recent period in government and its most electorally successful leader”. I could see no obvious support for this inaccurate assertion amongst the voter opinions reported.
So, we still don’t know the extent to which Brexit, Corbyn or patriotism affected that choice, especially amongst Labour’s main targets: young and insecure workers and impecunious families needing public welfare support and services. Most such voters will not be skilled workers but ‘D and E’. Many will also be ethnic minorities and many in both these categories are more, or as, likely not to vote at all rather than vote Tory. 2019 turnout was below average in all bar one of Payne’s and Mattinson’s constituencies, where most Tories won by narrow margins. Electoral participation and insecure employment is particularly low amongst young voters. Yet Mattinson’s focus groups only recruited people in their late 30s and above.
Hazeldine’s data is mainly from aggregate surveys and voting statistics. It is his comparison of the Manchester Gorton constituency (held by Labour) with Bishop Auckland (gained by Tories) that really highlights the salience of these wider class factors. Despite similar occupational class profiles, Gorton has a higher proportion of graduates and ethnic minority voters, but also fewer stable manufacturing jobs. In contrast to Gorton and the rootless ‘precariat’ image of deindustrialised wastelands, 15% of Auckland workers have such jobs. It’s significant that Auckland has more older voters and home owners than Gorton. Are the marginalised groups mentioned above similar to those in Gorton and closer to the nub of the ‘beyond the Red Wall’ problem? Labour might better aim to convince property-less voters, with insecure jobs and finances, to register and promise more secure employment and personal finance policies, than to wrap itself in the Union Jack and pro-business pinstripes.