The Labour Party Conference begins on Sunday in Brighton. Conferences are a time for parties to unveil new policy ideas, decide internal matters and for the leader to either bask in glory or avoid being stabbed in the back. Corbyn will be like a pop star from a boy band in front of adoring teenage fans, but this adoration may hide a dangerous future ahead as the party looks to change its core voters.
‘I will probably vote Conservative … my father will be turning in his grave’.
This was the view of one voter in Wales, who at the beginning of the election campaign was contemplating something her family found repulsive and that she herself thought unthinkable only a year ago. As the industrial revolution turned northern towns and cities into the heart of industry and economic growth, the Labour Party found swathes of support.
Born out of a decision by Unions to join forces and form the Labour Representation Committee, working-class voters in the mills and on the farms or in the factories and down the mines, saw the Labour Party as a political force that would fight for the socialist values that they felt would best serve their interests. In the 1906 General Election Keir Hardie led Labour to an impressive 29 seats.They were helped by the ‘Gladstone-McDonald Pact’, signed in 1903, that was an informal agreement to ensure that the Liberal and Labour Party did not split the anti-Conservative vote; resulting in 31 of the 50 seats where Labour Party candidates stood — the Liberal Party did not to put up a candidate. Twenty-four of Labour’s 29 MPs won election battles, where there was no Liberal candidate. The election result was notable for the unprecedented defeat of the ex-Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who had been the PM until a month before the election — losing his seat in the Manchester East constituency to the Liberal Party. The Liberal candidate, helped by a pact with the local Labour Party, proclaimed that ‘East Manchester is essentially a Labour constituency’.
Since 1906 Manchester has remained a Labour stronghold, electing Andy Burnham as Mayor last May. Since 1906, Labour has ebbed and flowed in its enthusiasm for socialism. From Tony Benn to Tony Blair, socialism and the Labour Party have had a turbulent history, with Blair credited for finding the new ‘centre ground’, and bringing Labour closer to the centre of British politics away from some of the far-left leanings of the 1970s and ’80s.
Since 1906 the working-class vote has remained loyal to the party, even in some of its darkest days. In the humiliating election of 1931, when the party lost 225 seats, Mansfield’s workers returned Labour MP, Charles Brown. The party’s base had remained firm. In 2017 Mansfield turned blue. With an increase in the Conservative vote of 18.48 per cent, Ben Bradley became the first Tory MP of Mansfield, with a majority of 17,704.
In the EU Referendum Mansfield resoundingly voted Leave, with 70.9 per cent of voters choosing to defy the wishes of the Labour leader and party.
Suddenly, Mansfield has changed from a Labour stronghold based on the reliance of the constituency’s workers to a Tory-supporting, Brexit-wanting seat.
Across the country, we saw a similar change take place. Where the Labour Leave vote was over about 25 per cent, the Conservatives saw a swing towards them from Labour.
But why have these workers suddenly changed their minds? Were they tricked by that big red bus? No!
For as long as the liberal elite, sitting on a certain amount of irrational self-awarded intellectual superiority, proclaim how thick Leave voters are, then leavers will continue to be leavers, perhaps even more vehemently.
In places like Mansfield or my two local constituencies of Scunthorpe and Grimsby, working-class people have been suffering. Since the financial crash of 2007, the disparity between rich and poor has felt larger. In Grimsby hundreds of low-paid workers have been made unemployed or seen their wages cut. People are working harder for less. Homelessness continues to rise. Whilst in the liberal stronghold of London, more money is being invested and more jobs are being created. The most recent example was the cancelling of the electrification of train routes in the North of England, whilst simultaneously Cross Rail 3 (in London) is being planned.
The Brexit vote of 2016 provided hope for people who had been neglected. They were promised that fewer migrants will compete with their jobs, and they were promised that less money will go to building roads in Bulgaria and more will go towards building homes and hospitals for them and their children. These are rational, sensible beliefs. Money is sent over to Brussels, the amount remains disputed, to invest in foreign infrastructure when at home our system crumbles under the extra demand by mainly EU migrants.
Jeremy Corbyn throughout the referendum kept a low profile, not wanting to upset the coalition of differing views his party was based around. In a similar way, in the so-called Brexit Election, Brexit was barely mentioned, helping Corbyn to focus the debate on austerity, thus weakening Theresa May.
Since the election, with hubris running high in the Labour leadership office, Corbyn has silently made a suicidal political move. In promising to vote against the EU Withdrawal Bill and advocating continued membership of the single market and the customs union, he is effectively ‘fudging’ the referendum result and ignoring the wishes of his base voters — the workers.
For the first time in its history, Labour has shifted away from representing the workers, and towards representing the liberal younger vote. This change in position was sensed by voters before the election, leading to shock results in Mansfield, but also Canterbury, where Labour attracted the student vote. The Conservatives targeted around 40 of the ‘labour-leavers’ seats but instead won less than ten. This was because of a dreadful and uninspiring Conservative general election campaign, that allowed the focus and narrative of the election to be almost exclusively on austerity.
May polled well when discussing Brexit, and slumped when discussing almost anything else. Fortunately for the Tories, in the next election, most likely to be held in 2019 or just after, voters will be focusing on only one thing: Brexit — after two years of constant updates on the negotiations. For Labour, students may have become disengaged or may be less interested in austerity, but a day is a long time in politics, two years a lifetime and support can change.
I suspect that our voter quoted at the beginning of this piece didn’t upset her father and vote Conservative. However, voters do like to thank politicians when they have benefited from them. In 2012 Obama was re-elected because he had pleased enough voters by creating jobs. In 2019 or later after successful Brexit negotiations, the Conservative Party will have pleased its own leavers but also Labour leavers. With the focus on Brexit and how to make the best of the new opportunities that a future outside the EU offers, the working-class vote will not forget how in the summer months of 2017, Labour abandoned them and chose to side with a liberal class these very workers have suffered from.
To please both the liberal youth and the working class is an impossible task. It will only lead to failure and runs the risk of alienating both groups of support. To Corbyn’s credit, he has realised this, explaining his decision to move Labour’s policies and aims away from the workers and towards students and the liberal elite, thereby shifting the party’s core support.
After its shift in Brexit policy, it will be interesting to see whether Labour will begin to make ground in altering some of its domestic policy at this Sunday’s conference, to attract more younger voters. Perhaps it will even go so far as to promise the the continued freedom of movement after Brexit? This will definitely be something interesting to look out for.
Bottom line, if Brexit is a success and improves the lives of the working class, then Labour may live to regret changing its base. Since 1906, the working classes have voted Labour, increasing in number by the year. Labour, should fear what may happen post-2017 to the working-class vote. It is a safety net, and one they do not want to be without.