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How Labour lost working class support in UK’s ‘left behind’ regions

Jeremy Corbyn tries to rebuild Labour’s support in the East Midlands. Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images

Labour is battling to retain a number of seats that have long been the party’s strongholds in the upcoming UK general election. Many of these areas are in the North of England and Midlands. They are post-industrial parts of the country where there was a substantial vote to leave the European Union in 2016. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is leaning heavily on this, with its promise to “get Brexit done”.

To understand the appeal of Brexit in these areas and the disillusionment with Labour, we need to understand the huge economic challenges they face. Much of this is the result of austerity. More than simply public spending cuts, it’s important to recognise austerity as an economic model, which was first introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s and has been embedded into the UK’s economic and social landscape since.

As well as cuts, austerity is a package of measures that includes privatisation, a regressive tax policy, reduction in wages and labour rights to make the workforce more “flexible”. Meanwhile, the attack on welfare has been a prominent feature of austerity. By 2020 there will be £27 billion less spending on social security than a decade earlier. As the UN’s poverty expert Phillip Alston put it in his 2019 report on Britain:

Many aspects of the design and rollout of [Universal Credit] have suggested that the [government] is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting.

Loss of support

The New Labour governments of the late 1990s and early 2000s were guilty of continuing the economic model introduced by Thatcher, and as a consequence abandoning its core electorate. This was a major reason for the Brexit vote and a major loss of support among working class communities for Labour.

For example, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study I was involved with looked at policies for deprived regions carried out under the 2005-07 Labour government. It found that funding cuts, privatisation and contracting out of employment services were the dominant policy models. Regeneration initiatives lacked the necessary resources to tackle the economic and employment needs of people living in deprived areas.

These are regions that once provided well-paid, skilled jobs for communities, with opportunities for career progression. Now the main employers are warehousing, retail parks and call centres which tend to offer insecure, unskilled and low-paid work.

Support in industrial areas used to be a shoo in for Labour. Scott Heppell/PA Archive/PA Images

The 2008 financial crisis gave rise to Conservative-led governments implementing draconian policies. These had devastating impacts across the UK, but in particular the former industrial areas of the north and Midlands. A 2014 report into the economic and social conditions of the former coalfield areas of the UK – former industrial heartlands and historic Labour strongholds – concluded:

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 may now be receding into history but the job losses that followed in its wake are still part of the everyday economic reality of most mining communities. The consequences are still all too visible in statistics on jobs, unemployment, benefits and health.

This was in the wake of the recession. But the follow-up 2019 report found that the former coalfields still lag behind on a number of indicators. The local economies remain weak, large numbers of people remain out of work on incapacity benefits, while many others claim in-work benefits.

Voting for change

The city of Sheffield, once a centre of steel, manufacturing and coal industries is another Labour stronghold that voted to leave the EU, raising some challenges for Labour in the upcoming election. The city has been significantly affected by austerity-driven cuts to public services. A recent study on the city region’s labour market, which I completed, found that between 2010-14 welfare and local government cuts alone resulted in £1.19 billion lost income from the region.

In another study carried out in 2018, colleagues and I found that regional wages are at a lower level than they were in 2008 and most employment growth has been low paid and insecure. Reliance on food banks is high and benefit sanctions are hurting people deemed “fit to work”, but who are sick or disabled. According to one citizens’ advice centre we spoke to:

Policies which are supposed to be about helping people to move closer to the labour market are in many cases damaging to health, self-defeating and at their very worst, causing deaths and contributing to suicides.

The Sheffield city region is an area with relatively low educational attainment, where insecure and precarious work is the norm. It typifies the “left behind” parts of the country where there has been a shift in voting from Labour to the Conservatives or Brexit Party.

Deindustrialisation also meant de-unionisation – the loss of thousands of trade union jobs and trade union infrastructure, which acted as an important voice and social glue in deprived areas. Ultimately, deindustrialised areas and working class communities became disenfranchised and vulnerable to poverty. This led to frustration and anger.

In the absence of a coherent alternative to austerity and, more importantly, a previous lack of active engagement by the Labour Party with its core electorate, a vote to leave the EU was a vote for change. And for some it was as an expression of protest.

Sociologist Peter Taylor Gooby perceptively points out that, through Brexit, elites closely linked to the Conservative government are positioning the UK within an increasingly globalised economy. The prospect is a “race to the bottom”, with the potential for market competition policies being used to reduce social protections and employment rights even further.

In many respects the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, along with the country’s trades unions, is attempting to steer the country in a direction that avoids this outcome. But the key challenge for them is engaging with and winning the confidence of marginalised working class populations.

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