Visiting marginal constituencies across the Midlands on Labour’s Battle Bus gives a stark sense of the challenges Labour faces in the upcoming election. In some areas, the sense of apathy among many traditional Labour voters is palpable. Activists have been worn down on the doorstep by constant complaints about Labour’s Brexit position and a general disdain towards politicians, Jeremy Corbyn included.
It would be wrong to suggest that communities like Ashfield, Walsall North and Mansfield have been ‘left behind’ – as though the rest of the country has been steaming ahead whilst these communities remain rooted in the past. Rather, successive governments deliberately promoted the interests of finance in the City of London at the expense of these communities – they are not simply frozen in time, they have been actively underdeveloped.
The process began with Thatcher’s assault on the labour movement, which tore many communities apart. This was followed by decades of deindustrialisation, driven in part by the declining competitiveness associated with an overvalued currency, which deprived them of good jobs. Next came the financial crisis, the costs of which have been borne disproportionately by the regions.
Having been ignored for decades, it was these places that tipped the balance in favour of Brexit in 2016. Many of the constituencies we visited had voted to leave by 70 per cent or more. Activists across the Midlands tell us that Brexit is the single most significant issue they are confronting on the doorstep.
But the most notable thing about these constituencies was the sheer number of voters who still have yet to make up their minds. Many of these ‘undecideds’ are disengaged with politics, not particularly ideological, and unaware of a lot of Labour’s policy positions. Activists all over the Midlands are looking to today’s manifesto launch to change this – to provide them with a sense of hope to communicate on the doorstep. They won’t be disappointed.
Of the policies to be announced today, one of the most popular amongst activists is the idea of the Green Industrial Revolution – a massive programme of investment aimed at substantially reducing carbon emissions by 2030. Whilst some will be disappointed the language of ‘net zero by 2030’ didn’t make it into the manifesto, the thing that matters are the policies behind the target – and these are hugely radical.
Labour has committed to creating one million jobs as part of the Green Industrial Revolution through retrofitting housing, infrastructure investment and greening the nation’s energy supply. Jobs will also be created through Labour’s plans to build 100,000 social houses a year by 2024 – an astonishingly bold commitment, which will amount to the biggest investment in council housing since Attlee’s post-war government.
With unemployment relatively low, many of these jobs would go to people currently underemployed in low-skill, low-paid precarious work, with upskilling paid for by the government. This would make a huge difference to workers up and down the country devastated by the precaritisation of employment. One activist we met on the campaign trail, who works as a nurse, told us that ambulances were sent to the warehouse of one major local employer around four times a week to deal with workers suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and acute hunger.
The regional distribution of the investment is also significant. Labour is promising jobs, wealth and power to places that have been ‘starved of investment following Tory deindustrialisation’ – places like Ashfield and Walsall. With the Brexit Party now out of the running, Labour stands a chance of winning marginal constituencies like these throughout the UK’s regions. Many traditional Labour voters in these areas may not like Jeremy Corbyn, but they hate the Thatcherite Tories even more – and they know their communities need the investment Labour is promising.
In many ways, coming up with these radical policies is the easy part. Communicating them is going to be much more difficult – especially with such a hostile press. This is why the work of Labour activists is so important. To disenfranchised and distrustful voters, it is much more powerful to hear about Labour’s policies from a friend, neighbour or co-worker than a talking head on morning TV.
The so-called ‘ground game’ – local campaigning as opposed to the ‘air game’ of national policy announcements – is what will win or lose this election. If we can successfully communicate the transformative policies contained in Labour’s manifesto to voters in constituencies like Mansfield, Labour will form a government on December 13th.
Boris Johnson is relying on the cold weather to keep voters at home. But thousands of activists up and down the country are going out in the cold every day to persuade voters to turn out for Labour. The determination, creativity and solidarity shown by these members is, in itself, a glimpse of a better future.