While campaigning in nearly fifty seats up and down the country over the course of this campaign, one thing has become very obvious to me: an almost unbridgeable gulf has emerged between the different parts of the United Kingdom.
Today, we are the most regionally unequal of all the advanced economies, bar Ireland and Slovakia. London is an international megacity, a playground for wealthy elites from all over the world, whilst some regions of the UK have similar levels of output to parts of eastern Europe.
The root causes are clear. Thatcher decimated the Midlands and the North with her assault on industry and the country’s labour movement. Many places still have yet to recover from the recession of the 1980s. Tony Blair’s election did help to arrest the decline in the regions, largely by replacing industrial with white-collar public-sector employment, but more problems were being stored up for the future.
By uncritically championing financial globalisation, New Labour exacerbated the imbalances that had emerged in the British economy under Thatcher. Financial deregulation, rising property prices and rising consumer debt sucked money in from the rest of the world and fuelled a boom that largely benefitted London. Before the crisis, the UK was widely considered to have had one of the most overvalued currencies in the world, exacerbating the deindustrialisation begun by Thatcher.
The end result was, of course, the financial crisis of 2008. Whilst it began in US mortgage markets, the crisis quickly spread to the UK’s heavily indebted and financialised economy via the centre of international finance that is the City of London. The costs of the banks’ excesses were imposed on working people up and down the country, but particularly in the regions where the impact of austerity was most severe.
It has been immensely difficult to communicate the level of suffering and despair felt in communities like Workington and Blyth to enthusiastic socialists in London. In Easington, I spoke to a woman who worked at a large supermarket who was trying to unionise the workforce – the supermarket, one of the town’s largest employers, had forced its employees onto insecure, flexible contracts. In Penistone and Stockbridge, I spoke to a nurse who spoke about how a new warehousing facility was attracting up to three ambulance visits a week because of the exhaustion experienced by its workers. In Copeland, I spoke to young mothers who had had to travel all the way to the nearest hospital in Carlisle to give birth.
These people feel utterly abandoned and betrayed by the Westminster-based political class, and they are right to. The vote to leave the European Union was won on the back of votes from people in these places, who sought to deliver a kicking to an establishment that didn’t seem to listen to them no matter how they voted in general elections. Everything that has happened since then has simply confirmed these peoples’ suspicions that their preferences simply do not matter to most of our political leaders.
In 2017, Labour came close to victory by acknowledging this anger and transforming it into a movement to upend the status quo through a deep transformation of the economy. But since then, this transformative message has been drowned out by a failure of leadership, epitomised by the vacillating over Brexit. Amongst those who switched from Labour to the Tories between 2017 and 2019, 37% cite the leadership and 21% cite Brexit. Just 6% cite economic policy.
The policy agenda, in other words, is not to blame. Among the general public, 60% people support Labour’s broadband policy. 64% support renationalising the railways. 63% support a Green New Deal. The centrist politics of Jo Swinson, Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna were roundly – and hopefully finally – defeated at this election.
Despite their flaws, it must, and indeed will, be acknowledged that Corbyn and McDonnell have done a huge amount to move forward the conversation about austerity, the climate and the economy in this country. Given the challenges we face – a looming recession, a housing crisis and climate breakdown – it is clearer than ever that there can be no returning to the austerity-lite policies of the pre-Corbyn era.
We have a decade to solve the climate crisis so maintaining Labour’s radical decarbonisation target and the Green New Deal policies that would facilitate a just transition are particularly critical. A commitment to maintaining the policies on unions, nationalisation and public investment – all critical issues for the regions – are all equally as important.
A sensible socialist policy agenda must be combined with effective leadership that can rebuild trust in leave-voting areas – in other words, Labour needs to elect a working-class leader from outside London. Rebecca Long-Bailey is the obvious candidate. We should rally behind her in order to throw our weight behind protecting the policy agenda.
Whatever happens next, one thing is clear: the conditions that gave rise to Corbynism have not gone away. After a decade of wage stagnation, inequality and austerity, and in the face of impending climate catastrophe, the choice we face remains the same: socialism or barbarism. The fight continues.