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Labour’s Other Heartlands

Labour has long been a coalition between Bethnal Green and Bolsover - it's vital that attempts to regain lost ground in the North and Midlands don't come at the expense of black and brown working-class people.

In the coming weeks and months, as we reconcile ourselves with this historic defeat, diagnose our failures, and look to rebuilding the Labour Party, many will look to strategies of abandonment and concession as quick fixes for rebranding our appeal to the country. This has already begun. Last weekend, Blue Labour returned, promising to combine economic socialism and cultural conservatism. The power struggle to come may define Labour’s big question as being how it “returns” to the voters who have abandoned it. It’s understandable to want to regain the trust of the places in the North and the Midlands that have rejected Labour. But this question is one which may further engineer a racialised division between the “legitimate concerns” of a “traditional working class”, and the concerns of a deprived ethnic minority population who, to many minds, have no other political home.

As South Asian Labour member, Neal Tank, writes on Twitter in response to this early Labour identity crisis: “working-class ethnic minority Londoners that voted Labour saved the party from electoral oblivion… let’s not take them for granted.” In many ways, rather than being Labour’s appeal being ‘too diverse’, as Stephen Kinnock has claimed, the issues affecting Black communities failed to be tabled during the election campaign. Black communities may have voted Labour, but they have felt shut out of political discourse. There was no conversation about how a fundamentally racist hostile environment has wrecked our families, and forced our relatives from their homes and to their deaths. While Tory police cuts were attacked as devastating communities, there was a false equivalence placed between greater police presence and greater safety – even though Black communities have suffered most at the violent hands of the police.

This problem is not so much that Labour demonstrated itself as ‘bad for Black people’ so much as the assumption that we will vote for them anyway.  As Aditya Charkrabortty writes in The Guardian, Labour has for decades taken “much of the north, the Midlands and Wales as its birthright” – taking for granted the specific political identity of the working class in these regions. The premiership of Blair and Brown offered little by way of recompense for these communities, which had seen their industries ravaged by Thatcher. Labour felt it could ignore the concerns of working-class voters because they were assumed to be pious followers of the Labour religion. Peter Mandelson’s belief that they had “nowhere else to go” became a creedal statement. What it failed to see was a class of increasing political atheists.

It is not hard to imagine the same thing happening in future to ethnic minority communities. Much like its “heartlands”, Labour has viewed its ethnic minority voting base as its birthright. But the legacy of New Labour to Black and Brown communities is the Iraq War. It is the former Home Secretary David Blunkett’s claim that focuses on institutional racism in government policy “miss the point.” It is his policies on crime and immigration which disappeared Black citizens from society for street crime, and denied asylum to the most vulnerable. It is his refusal to accept the conclusions of the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which defined the Metropolitan police as institutionally racist.

The legacy of New Labour is uniting foreign and domestic policy through Islamophobia as an article of faith. A ‘War on Terror’ to ideologically justify the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries was paired with increased domestic surveillance around Muslim communities, ‘counter-terrorism’ policies which curtailed civil liberties, a hostile environment, and Brown people painted as the enemy within. The ethnic minority vote has, somehow, endured in spite of this. Much of it has, in fact, been recovered by Corbyn due to his history of anti-apartheid and anti-war activism. An abandonment of these principles and a lurch to the right will see those old wounds from New Labour reopened, and these deep fissures will paralyse ethnic minorities into political atheism by our hundreds of thousands.

It is not only a lurch to the right which threatens to cull the support of ethnic minority Labour voters, but also the language and ideology which frames Labour’s emphasis on winning back its “heartlands” and the “traditional working class.” There is something to be said for how the Conservatives have been able to crack how this appeal to the “traditional working class” actually functions. And that’s because they have recognised that it is not an economic appeal. It is a cultural one. At the Conservative Party conference this year, Priti Patel stated “This daughter of immigrants needs no lectures from the North London, metropolitan, liberal elite.” As ever, many are quick to point out that socioeconomic inequality defines ‘diverse’ boroughs like Islington, with 33.7% of residents living in poverty, and the borough representing a rate of child poverty in London that is second only to Tower Hamlets. But this misses the point. If this were an economic appeal, it would not be anchored to advocacy for an Australian style points-based immigration system, but to welfare reform and rent control.

The relationship between class, age, place and race is not simple. Where metropolitan London contains individual economic insecurity, it also, like other big cities in the United Kingdom, contains investment in infrastructure and regeneration. But it is precisely these developments which have necessarily increased individual economic insecurity due to displacement and high living costs. One of many examples – the reparations for the London 2012 Olympics saw the Clays Lane Housing Estate in Stratford, housing 450 tenants, demolished. As big cities become more sexy, glamorous and cosmopolitan, the cost of living shoots up. But in those English and Welsh towns, villages and suburbs where cost of living remains affordable, whilst some can guarantee individual economic security, there has been a drastic decline in the urban landscape. As reported this year, town centres have witnessed a steady decline in UK high streets with 10% of shops left vacant. Community deprivation encourages a collective despondency, cultural discontent and resentment of the big cities. In turn, racism fuels this resentment to be most directly targeted at ethnic minorities and migrants in London, Manchester and Birmingham. 

It seems likely that it was precisely these people, secure in their housing and in many cases now in retirement, but who have seen their towns and villages decline sharply, who voted Tory in the ‘heartlands’. People of working age in their 20s, 30s and to a lesser extent 40s mostly voted Labour. It is glib to see this just as individual ideologies changing over time. It is likely this divide exists because, as Ash Sarkar points out, younger people are more asset poor. Ownership of assets, particularly in real estate, is the greatest guarantor of individual economic security.

The size of the Labour majorities in urban centres may also be due to the fact that older populations have expanded most rapidly in non-metropolitan areas, particularly as younger workers migrate to large cities for professional employment. But individual economic insecurity and precarity certainly exists in non-metropolitan areas, and the brunt of this is borne by younger workers, not all of whom can afford to leave. For example, privatisation of public sector jobs such as probation services has led to insecure employment.

In the past 9 years, the Tories have de-skilled and de-professionalised jobs in this sector. These English and Welsh towns certainly contain the asset poor, economically deprived and precarious. Many of these voters are still voting Labour. As Delta Poll data demonstrates, there is a strong correlation between a higher index of economic deprivation and Labour support. Economically speaking, these populations have everything in common with ethnic minority Londoners – and it is frustrating, therefore, that the concerns of the poorest people in non-metropolitan areas are set against ethnic minorities. 

This is why the Conservatives attach their message on immigration control to a conception of “London elites”. We must ensure is that people across the nation can recognise their commonalities. “Social conservatism” will be a term used to explain “traditional voters” betrayal of left-wing values, but it is a cover from explicitly talking about racism. To not abandon ethnic minorities in its appeal to “traditional working class” communities, Labour must bridge its message on individual economic deprivation, with its message on geographical economic deprivation – to unite a voter support base across age groups, ethnicity, and geography. This is the only way to avoid descending into what could be a horrific culture war.

I am terrified for Black and Brown people over the next five years. As a blue terror descends upon our country like the darkest night, our community is going to be threatened with displacement and social murder. The next five years will see increasing hate crimes, an accelerated hostile environment, tougher borders, and continued state neglect. Alt-right fascists have already claimed this election result as their victory. Black and Brown people will organise for our survival with or without institutional support, but Labour must recognise its indebtedness to ethnic minority communities, and continue to offer us a political home. Hackney, Tottenham, Hammersmith, and Lewisham, not to mention Moss Side, Chapeltown, Toxteth, Handsworth or St Paul’s, are also its “heartlands.” If Labour fails to recognise this, it risks our abandonment.