The Conservative strategy of targeting Leave-leaning Labour seats in the North of England has paid off. In the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber 26 seats switched from Labour to Conservative.
Support for Brexit and the triumph of the Conservative’s dogged focus on their pledge to “get Brexit done” was evidently a key factor in their success in these types of seats in the north, particularly when contrasted with Labour’s commitment to a second referendum and Jeremy Corbyn’s difficultly in outlining his own position on Brexit. The Conservatives won swathes of long-held Labour seats where support for Leave was high in the 2016 EU referendum – places like Don Valley, Bishop Auckland, and Great Grimsby. They also ran Labour close in some of their safest seats like Barnsley East, Hemsworth and Sunderland Central. Yet the issue of Brexit alone does not account for the party’s dramatic losses.
Towns and cities
Labour’s woes in its traditional heartlands are the result of the broader ongoing cosmopolitan-communitarian realignment of party support. This has been bubbling under the surface in England for over a decade. We have seen that younger, more formally educated, liberal minded voters are significantly more likely to vote Labour (and Remain) while older, less formally educated, socially conservative voters are increasingly minded to vote Conservative (and Leave).
Given the demographic spread in England, cities, university seats and more affluent suburbs are arguably Labour’s most fertile areas now. Meanwhile post-industrial towns and former mining villages – many of which are in the north – have become trickier terrain for the party. The economically working class – largely the younger “precariat” – might be spread across the country, but the traditional working class (in terms of both economics and culture) remains centred in these areas of industrial heritage.
This political realignment has been having an impact on Labour’s vote share in its traditional heartlands for several decades. That was true even during the electoral success of the Tony Blair years. The party lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010. Undoubtedly though, this election was the first time these changes have been significantly reflected in the electoral map. Labour held seats liked Canterbury and gained Putney but lost in Leigh, Rother Valley and Sedgefield – Blair’s former constituency in the north-east of England. Brexit divides exacerbated this realignment, but a disconnect in values between Labour and its traditional supporters in working-class communities was central to the party’s failure in the north.
Disconnect with Labour
This disconnect in values was apparent in a number of ways. First, there was Corbyn’s personal unpopularity. Polls suggest that he was the most unpopular opposition party leader in modern times and this undoubtedly hurt Labour. While Boris Johnson’s own popularity ratings were poor as well, Corbyn failed spectacularly in connecting with voters.
Most significant though is the sense that the Labour Party more broadly no longer represents the values of voters in its heartland seats. This is particularly so when it comes to cultural values. On issues such as immigration and law and order Labour appeared to be out of step with much of its traditional voter base whose socially conservative views lead them to support tighter controls on immigration and harsher punishment for offenders.
In terms of economic values, evidence suggests that some of Labour’s economic policies such as nationalisation of key infrastructure and higher tax for the biggest earners were popular. However, when viewed as a whole package, Labour’s economic proposals may have worried voters more adverse to change. Additionally, there is a school of thought that argues the “post-workerist” ideas flirted with by the party, like a four day week, do not chime with many working-class voters’ perceptions of labourism. It may be that Labour’s vision was too bold for many.
The new normal?
When it comes to the impact of all of this on future party politics in the north, if Labour is to stand a chance of regaining many of these seats it must somehow develop an identity and policy platform that can appeal to voters both in traditional heartlands seats in the north and elsewhere as well as to inner city voters and to those in its newer centres of power in more affluent suburbs. This will not be any easy task, especially when it comes to presenting cultural values that appeal to the bulk of voters in all of these different constituencies.
That said, if they wish to retain their gains in the north, the Conservatives must also take steps. Johnson must ensure that he delivers on his promises not just on Brexit but also on, as he puts it, “levelling up” funding and investment on services across the country but particularly in the north. How both of the main parties respond to this radical shake up of the electoral map over the course of the next parliament will determining whether it was a blip – merely voters “lending” their vote to the Conservative’s largely because of Brexit – or whether it is the new reality of England’s electoral geography.