Has Labour Lost the North?

Deindustrialisation, privatisation, and then austerity produced decades of decline in the north of England. Labour must fight its corner again — before it’s too late.

Ormonde Colliery, Derbyshire. (Photo by CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

On 28 September 2018, the annual South Shields Lecture took place in a school on the River Tyne. Previous speakers at the event had included local lad Sting, and the directors Danny Boyle and Sam Mendes; but this year it took the form of a conversation between an interesting pairing.

On the one hand, Blairite passionara David Miliband, who was MP for South Shields between 2001 and 2013, was a fairly obvious choice. But joining Miliband was the former Tory Prime Minister John Major, a man responsible for the ‘Thatcherism on autopilot’ of the early 1990s, when the shipbuilding and mining industries that sustained North East towns like South Shields were finally liquidated by a remorseless Conservative government.

In this strange spectacle of a London-based Tory grandee uniting with a New York–based policy analyst in order to, among other things, lecture an overwhelmingly Leave-voting constituency that Brexit would make it ‘poorer and weaker’, the forty-year neoliberal relationship with the north of England stands summarised in starkly poetic terms.

More specifically, viewed through the lens of recent Labour Party history, the sight of Miliband showing tacit sympathy with the Thatcherite tendencies that destroyed South Shields, while blithely ignoring the experiences and attitudes of his former constituents, highlights the sangfroid with which Labour has severed itself from its northern heartlands over the last four decades.

If it is not quite true that Labour has lost the North — or at least not yet — it is certainly the case that it is losing key northern demographics at a rapid rate, even in the wake of a recent Corbynite takeover that promised to check the London-centric managerialism of New Labourites like David Miliband. While the causes of this shift are deep-seated and long-running, it is only now, as we come to the end of the 2010s, that Labour’s fractured marriage with post-industrial communities is reaching breaking point.

Indeed, it is eminently possible that the loss of a tranche of northern seats at the next general election will lead to the defeat of the Corbyn project, and the return of another botched centre-right coalition to power. In light of this looming catastrophe, there is some urgency in the need to assess the extent of Labour’s northern problem, and to point to ways of halting the defection of ‘left behind’ northern Labour voters to apathy, the Brexit Party, or worse.

Heartland Rock

Examining Labour’s history underlines that there have always been deep structural weaknesses in its dependency on the relationship between place and political loyalty. As Tom Nairn commented in 1964, the Labour Party ‘did not come into being in response to any theory about what a socialist party should be; it arose empirically, in a quite piece-meal fashion.’ In the context of the English North — as in the parallel cases of industrial Wales and Scotland — this meant that Labour developed more or less organically, as the ultimate expression of the vernacular trade union movements of the nineteenth century.

In the territorial pattern that guided Labour’s formation, local associations would spring up in industrial areas as a means of empowering communities of workers and their families. As the century wore on, they gradually federalised into a national network of disparate political factions, which was united by a simple, empirical sense that, for its ideological diversity, it always embodied the cause of labour.

The English North played a starring role in this narrative. From the inauguration of the TUC in Manchester in 1868, to the rash of local organisations in places like Colne Valley and Salford that would amalgamate to form the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s, and finally to the historic proposal in 1900 by a Doncaster railway worker that a conference should be held to allow the TUC to establish a parliamentary front in the form of the Labour Representation Committee, Labour was in its early years very much an outgrowth of northern industrial consciousness.

Subsequently, as Labour became an established parliamentary force from the 1920s on, a familiar electoral picture began to emerge. While the vast majority of English rural constituencies — especially in the South — shaded Tory blue in the aftermath of the Liberal Party’s demise, substantial red heartlands started to coagulate in North East England, South and West Yorkshire, Lancashire, West Cumbria, and North Staffordshire.

On the one hand, it is important not to view ‘The North’ as a monolithic Labour fiefdom. It has always been a politically various region, subject to multiple and continual shifts of allegiance, even after the rise of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the wake of the first World War. Indeed, Labour has never quite been able to rely on its so-called northern heartlands. Even discounting the many solidly Tory northern rural seats, Liverpool returned Tory MPs up to the 1960s, for instance, and even during the polarised 1980s, seats like Newcastle Central in the north-east could briefly turn blue as a result of local quirks.

But it is true that in the textile districts of Manchester, the port towns of West Cumbria, and especially the vast coalfield areas scattered across the North that nurtured such a large portion of its population and culture, voting Labour was something that was done without a second thought, from the time of the General Strike through the post-war years and the Thatcher nadir, up to the Blairite millennium.

Aside from the brief, partial upturn of the post-war years, this was mostly a period of slow, unchecked decline for the region from its Victorian heyday, when it had resembled hyper-developed modern locales like Shanghai and Silicon Valley. But despite and perhaps partly because of this backdrop of downturn and depression, the Labour Party was throughout this period, for the vast majority of people in the mining districts of County Durham or South Yorkshire, less a political party than a secular church, with all the sense of emotional attachment and injunctions against non-attendance that implies.

Land of the Goafs

But Labour’s foundation in communitarian organisation also offers a good starting point for understanding its tragic drift away from its northern bedrock over the millennial period. For while traditionalist tendencies like Blue Labour have argued recently for a return to the emphasis on faith, family, and localism that sustained the party in its years of formation and maturation, an obvious flaw in this idea is that when families and local communities change irrevocably, as they have done over the last half-century of deindustrialisation, their institutions and places of worship must follow suit, or risk extinction.

To an extent, Labour’s changing relationship with its heartlands from the 1980s on has been shaped by this fundamental truth — the fact that, in an increasingly desocialised and privatised society, the industrial areas of the North no longer have the community infrastructure to connect individuals to the party hierarchy as they did in Labour’s ‘heroic age’ through local union branches and social clubs, national bodies like the NUM and TUC, and parliamentary party proper.

More pointedly, for all that the heritage of the Labour movement lives on — and is even undergoing something of a revival in the form of events like the Durham Miners’ Gala — the industries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are now gone forever. This is, obviously, a pretty formidable problem for a historically ‘empirical’ party founded on the experience of workers attached to specific workplaces.

In the mining communities of the past, the name given to a mine that had been worked out and abandoned was a goaf, and if a single metaphor is capable of conjuring the landscape of the North under neoliberalism, this is it. Because the map of the North is still in a fundamental economic sense a complex of goafs, there is no longer much material basis for working-class identification with the Labour Party, and very few community hubs are left to provide centres for a revived communitarian Labourism.

But alongside this socio-economic reality, which we can assign to largely external, conservative driving forces, the internal movements of recent Labour history — up to and including Corbynism — have in far too many cases served to compound the abandonment of northern communities to an existence without democratic substance.

Blairites to Brexiteers

It’s important to recognise that the impetus of Labour’s development after the failed Miners’ Strike of 1984–1985 hinged on a repudiation of the party’s historical basis in northern industrial culture. The process began in earnest under Neil Kinnock, whose career as Labour leader started with a determined campaign to put clear water between his ‘new realist’ movement and the miners’ struggle.

But at least Kinnock bothered to show up to the Durham Miners’ Gala. In a crucial period lasting from 1989 to 2012, Labour leaders purposely avoided being seen at the event, presumably out of anxiety that association with the rusty old north might darken a day-glo modernising project which saw Kinnock’s New Realism segue into the overtly liberal and pro-market politics of New Labour.

Somewhat ironically, a large number of the key architects of Blairism held northern seats. Indeed, many were elevated to power on the back of constituencies in the post-industrial coalfield areas of the North East, from Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) and Alan Milburn (Darlington), to David Miliband (South Shields) and Blair himself (Sedgefield).

But while Blair was happy to be filmed playing head tennis with northern football hero Kevin Keegan in the run-up to the 1997 election, more generally the New Labour project was an enthusiastic continuation of Thatcherism, with its determination to build up London as a financial centre and orient policy around conservative swing voters in the South East. As a result, for all that the Blairites made occasional gestures at northern causes — notably by preparing the way for the ultimately unsuccessful and under-supported North East England devolution referendum in 2004 — the Labour government of 1997–2010 drove the South into a position of even greater economic predominance over the North.

While this policy narrative was mirrored in the personal reluctance of the Blair caucus to set foot in their northern constituencies — in the extreme case of Peter Mandelson and Hartlepool, it is hard to imagine a more extravagant mismatch of subject and object — from the other side northern voters followed a pattern of gradually slipping away from the party in successive elections, with apathy the main beneficiary at first.

The Labour majority in Hartlepool sank from over 17,000 in 1997 to 14,000 in 2001, and then from 7,000 to 5,000 between 2005 and 2010 (in the same period, the South Shields majority dwindled from 22,000 to 11,000, Sedgefield from 25,000 to 8,000, and Darlington from 13,000 to 3,000).

To be sure, these were still comfortable heartland margins. However, there was more going on under the surface here than Labour’s continued electoral grip on the North suggested. As the folk memory of tribal attachment to Labour based on community and workplace allegiance gradually faded, the taboo against not supporting the party started to evaporate.

Coinciding with this loosening of affective bonds, as the apathetic postmodernism of the Blairite period gave way to the more vituperative 2010s — with their culture wars, austerity, and anti-immigration demagoguery — northern voters in places like the County Durham coalfield started to turn to right-wing populist parties like the BNP and then UKIP, albeit tentatively and in insufficient numbers to actually unseat Labour MPs.

The inroads made in the North by UKIP and its oedipal successor the Brexit Party should not be exaggerated (as a stereotyping London media has done with self-satisfied delight over the last few years). At the time of writing, first-past-the-post has thus far meant that Labour has lost seats in only a small handful of the deindustrialised former heartlands — such as North Derbyshire, Copeland, and Stoke South — and in all cases it has been the Conservatives who have benefitted from relatively modest right-populist swings.

Moreover, the picture is complicated by local nuances. Labour performed badly in certain northern areas in the 2019 local elections, losing control of Bolton, Hartlepool, North East Derbyshire, Bolsover, Burnley, Darlington, Middlesbrough, Stockton, and Wirral — all thoroughgoing heartland areas. But against a backdrop of Brexit hiatus, and bearing in mind the usual caveats of low-turnout, apathy, and increased support for small parties and independents, that always qualify local election results, Labour’s poor showing was not exactly a northern rout (and indeed it gained control of heartland areas like Amber Valley, Calderdale, High Peak, and Trafford).

Nevertheless, if Labour’s declining support in places like Bolton, Hartlepool, and the Wirral continues, there is a good chance that the next general election will witness the birth of a new category of political sub-region — the Labour goaf or renounced heartland. With Tory implosion now a very real possibility, and with the Brexit Party appearing on the scene as a dynamic, insurgent force shorn of the tweedy, Home Counties associations of UKIP, the likelihood of a Brexit Party bloc in parliament comprising a couple of dozen northern seats appears worryingly high.

Reactivating a Region

The point is that even if the present volatility of British politics does not result in a Brexit Party breakthrough, Labour’s relationship with the North is heading for a final reckoning. At present, the party simply does not know how to re-establish old ties with the northern territories that brought it into being in the first place.

Though the recent Corbyn insurgency has advocated an economic programme that would go some way toward reversing the negative effects of deindustrialisation, it will not be able to implement these policies at all if it does not put its heart into winning back the northern heartlands. The fact that it would be possible, in little over an hour, to take a train across the London constituencies of the four MPs who occupy the shadow ‘Great Offices of State’ is clearly a problem.

To be clear, we should not — as craven Corbyn-sceptics do — assign blame for the putative loss of the North to the party’s leftward shift since 2015. As I have argued, the uprooting process began much further back, with the devastation wrought by neoliberalism on industrial communities, and subsequently with the Blairite assumption that its northern constituencies were loyal colonies whose support could be taken for granted, while the more important campaigns of Tory-wooing and triangulation were fought down south.

Nevertheless, the development of a northern front in Labour’s new radical incarnation has been notably slow to materialise. For all that Labour’s northern problem is not the fault of the Corbyn project now leading the party into a new decade, it will rightly shoulder a large portion of the blame if the heartlands shift decisively rightward at the next time of asking.

To forestall this disaster, alongside its radical economic programme for reversing neoliberal ruination, Labour must put some energy into a dynamic hearts and minds campaign to win back its former natural habitat. Radical proposals for shifting currently London-based institutions and infrastructure northward should be made much more regularly. Some manner of ‘Minister for the North’ role should be created in the shadow cabinet, and care taken to install more northern MPs in prominent positions. In the near future, northern MPs like Rebecca Long-Bailey and Laura Pidcock should be the ones arguing for the party’s transformative policies in the communities that most need them.

Above all, Labour has to place an imaginative, renovated programme for regional devolution at the front of its electoral offer, and use this to siphon off the populist energy currently being channelled into right-wing campaigns based on a reactionary idea of ‘Englishness’.

The North is already a more-or-less distinct geopolitical region, partly because of the harrying effects of the neoliberal failure to rebuild it in the wake of deindustrialisation. Labour must, as Scottish nationalists have done, make a virtue of this scorched earth context, and use anger at lack of investment by a political system in hock to the City of London to reawaken the radical socialist tribalism lying below the surface of the North’s socio-cultural landscape.

Pummelled by successive waves of neoliberal attack, from deindustrialisation and privatisation to the final insult of 2010s austerity, the North is crying out for one thing above all: representation. Working out how to provide this will be vital for the strategic ambitions of Corbyn-led Labour. It is also, more deeply, the most fundamental moral imperative now facing the British Labour movement — a question, above all, of soul.