In the Red Wall, the Signs Were Ignored

Former Labour MP Laura Smith, who lost her seat in December's election, responds to the Labour Together report – and argues that those who saw the disaster coming in Red Wall seats were ignored.

December 12th, 2019 began appropriately – grey, cold and with rain pouring from the skies above. 

The campaign was ending and the hard work of persuasion was over. Knocking on doors for the weeks leading up to that day was mainly soul destroying. We saw disaster coming; we predicted it for months in advance as the Labour message got more and more focused on overturning the referendum. It was a train hurtling towards us as we stood stuck to the tracks. 

You didn’t have to possess any kind of special knowledge to see it coming. You just had to talk to people. “I knew what I voted for,” they said “who are you lot to tell me otherwise?” “I voted Labour all my life but no more!” “I voted to remain but I respect democracy.” We – me and the activists who campaigned – wanted to talk about building a fairer, more equal society but we couldn’t get past people’s anger. The door was closed.  

A radical programme for change failed ironically because we were seen as too establishment. On a wave of anti-establishment sentiment Crewe and Nantwich elected a twice-failed career politician with no roots in the area as its MP and a hard-right Etonian as its PM. It was desperately sad.   

I am what people often say they want in parliament. I was born and bred in the constituency, I’d had no ambition to be an MP, I was rooted in the community and had more than my fair share of “real life” experience outside politics. But the Labour Party was not an easy place to be leading up to the election, where my perspective was often not valued at all. 

Because I took the position that democratic votes should be respected – and that this one would be with or without Labour in power – I was treated with stereotyping and venom. I was described as a Red Tory and a racist, often by people who had consistently themselves pushed for Labour to be “tougher” on immigrants and welfare claimants in years past. It was as hurtful as it was misguided. 

For two years I sat in meetings painting the picture of what was going to happen in seats like mine if we didn’t stick to our 2017 Brexit policy, and for two years people who had no possible idea of life in communities like Crewe ignored me. Week after week Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery told the Shadow Cabinet that there was no route to a Labour victory that did not run through the leave-voting marginals of England and Wales. Their views were ignored and suppressed.

Jeremy Corbyn was among the few who listened. But with dozens of Remain MPs threatening to quit and organising a campaign through the press, party management came first. London MPs with huge majorities were given more thought than those of us clearly at risk, and London marginals with heavy Tory majorities invested in more than decades-old Labour seats in heartland areas which were hanging by a thread.

To be frank, the Labour Together report tells me little that I didn’t already know. Of course, Jeremy Corbyn was an issue on the doorstep; but there were reasons for this. If MPs attack their own party leader non-stop for four years then eventually it will stick. By 2017, it hadn’t had time to – but by 2019 it had. A relentless campaign, not from the Tories but from within our own ranks, ensured the leader and the party were not trusted. In 2017, Corbyn was seen as a principled and consistent politician. But by 2019, he forced into an anti-democratic u-turn on Brexit – and increasingly seen as calculating, if not compromised. 

Even if Theresa May’s deal had passed we have been heading for a planned and relatively soft Brexit which Labour could influence while standing ready to be in power at the next election. Instead, we now have a Tory hard Brexit on the horizon. Worse, we have a government that has deliberately stoked racism, division and culture wars.

We have seen a catastrophic and criminally negligent level of failure in the face of a national crisis. Inequality, poverty pay and injustice will deepen and we will be left even more vulnerable to the crises of the future. This is the reality of what happens when Westminster games take precedence over listening to and engaging with working-class communities.

The Labour Together report acknowledges this, in part at least. It shows the disconnect between the party and its diverse coalition of working and middle-class people from cities, towns and rural areas and I welcome the report’s praise of community organising. It is now time to think about how we win again. Labour has to ensure it roots itself back in the communities it seeks to represent and demonstrate vision and hope. 

From parish to parliament we must be clear in our message; in our desire for social justice, our willingness to take on the elites that have stripped the decency out of our politics, and our willingness to listen to people and put them in power. We must be prepared to understand a multitude of different experiences.

Sometimes we will have to disagree with the conclusions people come to, but we should understand their journey to that point and how to relate to them. Quality political education is something that is desperately needed in the party and across the Left, and this is what was so obviously lacking over the European Union debate.

There are people working desperately hard to heal the wounds so that we can see a much-needed Labour government that offers something radically different to what we see now. We can all play our part in that. We need to think locally as well as keeping the larger picture in mind.

I intend to use my role as a local councillor to work on rebuilding trust in a community. Meanwhile I am (virtually) touring the country with Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett listening to ideas and experiences in places we lost. 

I do not have an easy answer or a quick fix. It will take time, energy, effort and we will face huge barriers both inside and outside Labour to solve these problems. But Labour remains the only vehicle that can use parliament to put working-class communities in power; so solve them we must.