What Happened in Crewe

In 2017, Labour's victory in Crewe seemed to be a sign of renewal in one of its former strongholds. 2019's result shows that the party's problems in towns like this run much deeper - and won't be solved easily.

What happened on Thursday is monumental, and Labour’s defeat seems all the more painful because of the collapse of its traditional of the vote heartlands in the North and Midlands.

Durham North West, held by Labour since it was recreated as a constituency in 1950 and last represented by Laura Pidcock, had a Labour majority of nearly 9,000 wiped out. Bolsover, in the West Midlands and held for nearly 50 years by the indomitable Dennis Skinner, lost its Labour majority for the first time. And this story is repeated across the North.

For me, the hardest to take has been the defeat in Crewe and Nantwich. The town, a Victorian new town formed in the bucolic Cheshire countryside in 1843 as a railway hub, was once an industrial powerhouse. All of the train engines that serviced the West Coast mainline well into the 20th century were built in the vast workshops that lay in at its centre.

Post-war reconstruction also saw a boom in the auto industry in the town, with Rolls-Royce and Bentley having factories there that churned out luxury vehicles and provided stable jobs for the town’s skilled craftsmen and engineers.

Yet today, Crewe is blighted with deindustrialisation. Unemployment and poverty are high. The life expectancy for men is 12 years lower in Crewe than in its near neighbour, the middle class commuter town of Nantwich. In this way it is perhaps symptomatic of the decline of the North of England.

Just as symptomatic was the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Over 60% of the town voted leave – a pattern we can see throughout former industrial towns across England and Wales.

Yet, there have been glimmers of hope. Crewe was a former Labour stronghold, having been held by the famously combative MP Gwyneth Dunwoody from 1974 until her death in 2008. “Gunboat Gwyneth”, as she was known in Westminster, was renowned in the 1980s as one of Neil Kinnock’s fiercest supporters, and was instrumental in the campaign against Militant. Yet, the 1990s saw her turn into one of New Labour’s strongest critics, fighting against Blair’s policies on the railways.

That changed in 2008, with the famous “end of New Labour” election. The by-election, triggered by Dunwoody’s death, saw her daughter, Tamsin running against the Tory candidate Edward Timpson. Timpson, a local boy, is the Eton educated heir of the eponymous shoe repair business. 

The by election itself was fiercely fought. One now infamous election leaflet saw Dunwoody Junior railing against Tory Boy Timpson, branding him “Lord Snooty,” and election events saw Labour supporters parading around town in top hats. For New Labourites, this kind of “class-war” rhetoric demonstrated in stark detail the dead-end of old Labourism. In the words of the Blairite think-tank Progress, it demonstrated that “attacks on the rich [like those used in the campaign] threaten to undermine one of the key tenets of New Labour: that Labour should be a broad-based coalition representing people from all social backgrounds.”

This rhetoric, it continued, is “only off-putting to the middle-class voters the party needs if it is to be re-elected, [it is] also profoundly patronising to Labour’s working-class supporters”. Labour MP David Lammy, who would become famous a few years later for speaking out against delinquent youths in London after the 2011 riots, took as his main lesson from the campaign that the “public do feel that politicians are out of touch – but it is the political class, not the upper class, that is the problem.” 

Hindsight suggests a different picture. Labour’s vote share nationally as well as in Crewe had been declining at every election since 1997, and the 2008 by election came on the back of the financial crisis and the first stirrings of post-crash austerity under Gordon Brown. If there is a grain of truth in the New Labourite spin, it is that traditional working class affiliation has in many senses dissipated since Crewe became a staunch Labour town in the 1920s.

The town is no longer filled with Working Men’s Clubs and Friendly Societies, and the once powerful unions are a diminished force after decades of political assault from the right and the centre. As a result, there is now poverty in levels little seen since the declining years of the first great railway boom in the late nineteenth century. If we were to venture a term for the changes that have been wrought on the town over the past half century perhaps it would be that most symbolically English word: Decline.

After the 2008 by-election, Timpson went on to win at the next two elections. 2017, however, saw something of an upset. Unfancied local education activist and teacher Laura Smith rode a wave of enthusiasm following Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to Labour’s top job and defeated Timpson by just 48 votes, overturning the previous majority of 3,620. Crucial for that was the rise in the number of voters; over 5,000 more votes were cast in 2017 than 2015 with the majority of those votes going to Labour. There was a rising anger in the town in the run up to the election, one that locally Smith, and nationally Jeremy Corbyn, was able to harness.

That all makes this week’s defeat, and the new Tory majority of 8,000 votes, all the more difficult to take. Smith proved an inspirational local MP and campaigner, and her solidly pro-Brexit line should have cut through in a town that voted so heavily to Leave. But it didn’t – her personal position wasn’t enough to override the wave against the party.

The issues that this election has raised will not be easy to solve. Nationally, Labour’s move towards a more Remain position took its toll on the vote outside of London. Labour’s membership may have exploded in the past few years, but outside of London and the South East it has been more or less stagnant. It is obvious that we, as a movement, could not cut through the media bias, and have not yet been able to remake ourselves as a working-class party that can appeal to those in its former heartlands.

Crewe in this sense is not unusual. Labour’s demise here has been a long time coming, in which 2017 now looks like an aberration rather than a reversal. Towns like it need the kind of policies that Labour has started to develop since Corbyn became leader now more than ever. To reconnect with the former heartlands will not be easy. To start to do that though we need to change our strategy, move the emphasis away from the liberal-left in London, and once more talk the language of class.