Richard Holden: Why Labour’s grip on seats like mine weakened. And how we can strenghten our own everywhere.

24 May

The Lazy Hollow Café & Patisserie, Mason St., Consett

Uma is, I’d guess, in her 50s. She’s buoyant, a good baker, and clearly one of those people who is not just hard-working, but also puts her heart and soul into everything she does.

A teaching assistant at a state comprehensive for the last quarter of a century, in December she took the plunge – “while I’m young enough”, she tells me – and decided to take on a café in Consett town centre. Duringg the final assembly at the school in which she worked, she tells me how she wept ,and speaks with real passion and care for the children she helped over the years.

I don’t know (and doesn’t ask) whether she voted for me or not. She gives me a little tour, and we have a couple of photos. Then we settle down to coffee and (the excellent cake she’s made), and just chat.  About education policy – an area of mutual interest – her new business and the challenges she’s facing, and the prospects of the largest town in my constituency.

She’s so positive and proud about what she and her team have done to this former job centre and amusement arcade, which is now a lovey café. And so they should be: it is fabulous.

Uma doesn’t fit the narrative that has developed of the normal Northern working-class voter that the media has portrayed as the “switch voter” that cost Labour the “Red Wall.” As a recent YouGov poll suggested – to the astonishment of many commentators – they’re pretty much like everyone else in the UK.

But, if that’s the case, three questions remain unanswered: first, why did these towns and villages continue to vote Labour for so long; second, why did they switch to the Conservatives and, third, why did they do so now?

So: why did they vote Labour in the first place? I think there are three historic differences in the political culture – the Red Wall ‘Holy Trinity’ that has slowly broken down over decades making these areas more similar to the rest of the country than before. Large unionised industries that re-enforced social class differences had an influence in everything from housing for the retired to the social clubs people went to of an evening; religion, via the non-establishment combination of Methodism and Roman Catholicism (both socially conservative – to varying degrees – but economically left-of-centre); and a traditional Labour Party of the people that was both of and in touch with these communities.

Over the last 60 years, especially since Wilson’s “White Heat of Technology” was accompanied by the pit closures of the late 1960s (people forget that Wilson closed more pits than anyone else) the beginning of the real decline in the traditional religious underpinnings took place.

These continued in the background for decades, but the break with Labour took longer. The party received a brief fillip in the early years of Tony Blair, but the break soon accelerated as ‘New Labour’ seemed to take votes but provide little in return. Many people stopped voting – and the Liberal Democrats made some moderate progressm, though rarely enough to more than dint in large Labour majorities.

Then followed a significant shift to the Britain-hating far left under Jeremy Corbyn – and the betrayal over Brexit further jolted these communities politically, too. On top of this, Labour just took their own voters for granted with too often lazy MPs (or at least MPs more interested in working on their interests rather than those of the communities they were supposed to serve) and that real, final, community orientated link between MP-Labour Party-constituency which had looked wobbly for a long time was broken.

All this can explain the move away from Labour: but why go Conservative – and why now? Well, it’s been a long, long process. The truth can be heard on the doorstep of seats like mine.

Many people barely saw a leaflet at election time, never mind between elections. And if they did get a leaflet or a knock-on-the-door they weren’t getting them from Conservatives. Conservatives were moribund, inactive and weren’t providing that alternative on the ground people were increasingly craving.

Votes spread out to the Liberal Democrats, Independents, UKIP and, sadly, to the “Won’t vote.” It was only in 2017 that the Conservative Party really realised that things could change in these seats, and started putting more effort in. That year saw a marked shift following Brexit towards the party. We must now use those results as a springboard to consolidate current constituencies, and push forward to more areas.

Moreover, there are these sort of former traditional Labour voters in every seat in the country. Ask any Conservative MP who campaigns hard in their patch. Traditional Labour wards in these areas – previously thought difficult to win – are now likely the strongest Conservative areas of these seats. These voters are there if people want to find them.

I read largely anonymous comments from some of my colleagues in other more ‘traditional’ Conservative parts of the country who put forward a variety of factors as to why seats were lost recently. Some put it down to national policy challenges but, given gains across the country from Cheltenham to Plymouth to Harlow to Delves Lane in Consett, and even Shaun Bailey in London trimming Sadiq Khan’s majority in what was meant to be the ‘heart’ of Labour, it’s clear that, actually, campaigning is what counts.

Given the national circumstances almost all seats we held could have remained Conservative if greater efforts had been made. I can see from the results across County Durham that the better the campaign, the better the result. For the first time in over 102 years, Labour may soon no longer run County Durham Council because of campaigning Conservatives.

Perhaps my thoughts are best summed up by one colleague from the South East England, apoplectic upon returning to Westminster having lost a council seat held by the Conservatives for generations. He said that he’d been telling his sitting councillor of ten years to campaign, but they kept brushing him off telling him they had “important meetings at County Hall to attend” – well, that councillor won’t be attending County Hall at all any more.

The Labour activists on the ground may still believe that someone’s so-called “class” defines their politics. That’s absolute nonsense and any Conservative who is idiotic enough to believe it needs their head examined. The “Holy Trinity” of why people voted Labour has broken down in the ‘Red Wall’ and elsewhere.

What counts is campaigning because, as that YouGov poll suggested, voters whether in the North of England of East London are not dissimilar. They want people out there and fighting for them and they’re open to voting Conservative if we’re prepared to put the effort in on the ground.

Lib Dems local election effort will focus on the districts

23 Mar

Among the abundance of elections taking place in May are those in 59 district councils. There would have been a few more. But no council elections are taking place in Cumbria, Somerset, or North Yorkshire, due to plans to establish unitary authorities in those areas. Those proposals reflect a trend elsewhere. It is a quiet but fundamental change that has had little attention – due to it having taken place over several decades. This year we see the emergence of North Northamptonshire Council and and West Northamptonshire Council with unitary arrangements for that county. Last year it happened to Buckinghamshire. The year before that it was Dorset. In 2009 we saw it take place in Wiltshire, Shropshire, Cornwall, and Cheshire. It has resulted not only in fewer councils, but also in fewer councillors. In 2005 there were over 22,000 of them in the UK. By 2019 it was down to 19,647. If only MPs at Westminster had made equivalent progress in reducing their own number.

Anyway, there are still enough district councils still in existence to keep the psephologists busy – though the electoral drama is constrained by most of them only contesting a third of their seats and thus limiting the potential for the number of councils that can see a change in political control.  The last time these seats were contested was in 2016. As I noted yesterday, that year saw Labour doing relatively well – compared to what the current opinion polling suggests of their present standing.

Burnley in the red wall (or “blue wall” as it should now be regarded) will be one to watch. Labour had already started to lose some seats to independents. But the Conservatives start from a low base with four councillors (of which, I gather, only one seat is up to be defended this time.) Labour have 22, of which they are defending nine.

By contrast, if Labour are picking up more support from a certain type of middle class voter, might they see gains in Worthing? It is not far from Brighton and Hove…

Other Labour/Conservative battles are in Amber Valley and Cannock Chase (where the Conservative Party Chairman Amanda Milling will take a particular interest). In both places, Labour start with a narrow lead. There is also Pendle – which has all the seats up for election – where there is a Labour/Lib Dem coalition. Yet the Pendle constituency has a Conservative MP.

But in more of these councils, the real contest is between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Will the best indication be the local election results of 2019 – where the Lib Dems did so well? Or the General Election, a few months later that year, where they got so resoundingly trounced? The opinion polls currently have the Lib Dems on around seven per cent. About the same as they were doing in the opinion polls in 2016. When it comes to real votes, in these local elections they will probably do much better. But then they did in 2016 when they won 15 per cent of the projected national vote share.

Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“If the Lib Dems don’t make progress on 2016 it will be a disappointment to them. In those places where they got new councillors elected in 2019 they will have tried to get dug in. So they will be looking for further gains. St Albans is somewhere they will be looking to gain where it is currently under no overall control.”

Cheltenham has half the seats up for election. The Lib Dems are already in control of the Council. Yet the Parliamentary constituency has a Conservative MP.

Perhaps too much focus on the established parties is the “old politics.” The last time we had local elections – in 2019 – the Conservatives did very badly. But independents and assorted residents associations gained almost as many seats as the Lib Dems. Usually, the catalyst turned out to be planning developments. Objections would be made to the high-handed manner in which such schemes would be put forward – arrogant bureaucrats engaging in purely sham “consultation” and “engagement”. However, the real problem was that the new homes proposed were ugly. Given that cutting off the supply of new housing would also prevent difficulty, the Government has proposed that councils should go ahead with housing development – but that it should be beautiful. Those new rules have yet to come in. Some councils have already got the message. Others have not. That is quite likely to result in some uneven electoral consequences which will only make sense once the local circumstances are investigated.