We’ve heard a lot about the Labour heartlands recently. From the cliches of Workington man to the red wall, Labour’s difficulties in what were once its industrial strongholds are well documented, and have featured prominently across the 2019 election coverage. A horde of London-based journalists, with their prior assumptions apparently already set in stone, has ventured out on rare journeys northwards in search of people prepared to back up those assumptions. Admittedly, they appear to have had little trouble in finding them.
There is no doubt that Labour has real and entrenched problems in a good number of these areas. The typical narrative lays the blame for this at Jeremy Corbyn’s door, and that of his supporters: these detached young metropolitans, it is said, are too busy riding their own hobby horses to forge any possible connection with the residents of former industrial areas across the north, Midlands and Wales. In fact, the concerns that animate millennial Corbynites are the same bread-and-butter issues that resonate in leave-voting towns: the lack of genuinely affordable housing, our increasingly inadequate public services, stagnant wages and declining living standards, the struggle for dignity and security at work, and so on.
Nevertheless, the narrative endures. As the party’s earlier collapse in Scotland ought to have indicated, the weakening of its so-called red wall began decades ago, and long predates both Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendency. The labour movement’s grassroots has been dwindling in many former industrial communities for nigh on 40 years: for instance, trade union membership, though it rose slightly in 2017-18, has roughly halved from its peak of 13 million at the turn of the 1980s. Labour party membership was always much smaller than that of the unions, but even this halved from around 400,000 in the early New Labour years to nearer 200,000 before the Corbyn surge of 2015. The movement as a whole is simply no longer present in the life of these communities in the ways it once was.
Suggestions that Labour has become too “socially liberal” to stem this decline tend to shy away from spelling out exactly what this means. With these arguments there are two assumptions that appear to be implicit: first, that working-class people in post-industrial areas can now only be reached via social conservatism, and second, that the working-class credentials of BAME and younger people – who are often Britain’s most precarious and poorly paid workers – are insufficiently authentic.
There has long been a dubious tendency to equate being working class with having a recognisably “regional” accent, and so mangled is the British discourse on class that it is often treated as a cultural signifier rather than a relationship to work, or a location in the economic and social hierarchy. The truth is that neglected ex-industrial communities are far from homogeneous, and there is no hope in any form of Labour politics that fails to recognise the immense diversity of the real-life working class – wherever it is located.
For all the accusations that Labour is out of touch with left-behind Britain, it is in fact the only party to offer a serious programme for redressing Britain’s enormous regional inequalities. It recognises that it isn’t simply a case of bankrolling investment and supporting the development of new, greener industries in regions long neglected, crucial though all this is; it is also a question of rebuilding social ties, community solidarity and tackling the alienation so prevalent in so many places across the country (and certainly not just those ravaged by decades of deindustrialisation).
Labour’s manifesto also proposes stripping back much of the anti-trade union legislation (some of the strictest in Europe) that constrains workers from struggling more effectively in the workplace, makes them easier to exploit, and which has been carefully designed for those exact purposes. The weakness of trade union organisation in Britain and the anaemic wage growth since the financial crisis of 2008 are not merely coincidental; to its lasting shame, 13 years of New Labour government did precious little to roll back anti-union legislation and unshackle workers looking to organise. This has to be an urgent priority for any incoming Labour government.
The truth is there are no quick fixes for the genuine challenge Labour faces in rebuilding its presence in Britain’s ex-industrial towns and cities. As much as anything, this is a matter of winning back trust. One thing that’s been striking about this election campaign is just how badly beaten-down a lot of people are: having been told for as long as they can remember that nothing can meaningfully be changed for the better, they’re having real trouble believing Labour when it tells them otherwise. The party’s task must be to knuckle down for the long haul, and persuade those people so disillusioned by decades of dishonesty that collective political action – and only collective political action – can deliver the substantial changes so desperately needed.
While its work has hitherto flown largely under the radar, Labour’s community organising unit points one way forward for the party as a whole. Since it was established in January 2018, it has thrown itself into grassroots projects across Britain, from working with football fans in Newcastle to helping address tenants’ needs in London. In the years ahead, this work needs to be expanded much more widely, and in time it should be taken up by constituency Labour parties themselves. This will require careful nurturing on the part of the party leadership and the wider labour movement, and support and encouragement must be provided to those activists looking to experiment with new ways of organising among the people the Labour party aspires to serve.
As happened in 2017, thousands of Labour activists across the country have again undertaken a remarkable rank-and-file effort to get a socialist-led Labour government into office. The tone of this year’s Labour campaign is not as irreverent as in 2017: instead, the mood this time is more serious, more resolute, only too conscious of the high stakes involved. Whatever happens on Thursday, it is vital that both the political and industrial wings of the labour movement recognise that only patient, long-term organising will rebuild political faith and trust, and in turn stand them on a much firmer footing in the years ahead.
• Tom Blackburn is a founding editor of New Socialist