I talk with Melanie Onn, the former Labour MP for Grimsby on the future of the party and why she thinks Johnson is more relatable than Corbyn.
In the days following the election result, the extent to which the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn could no longer understand or communicate with its traditional heartlands was made startlingly clear. Faced with millions of Labour voters switching for the first time to support the Conservative Party, Corbynites accused them of ‘selling out their own’. Meanwhile, the band Shame tweeted, ‘we don’t fucking want you’, and Lily Allen said that they had ‘voted for your kids to die with no healthcare and less brown people’.
The problem for the Labour Party is that when its loyalists shout that we don’t want ‘you’, ‘you’ actually means its millions of once loyal supporters that a decade ago would have associated the Tories only with the toxic memories of Thatcher and the 1980s. Now uniting two post-industrial northern towns is a new fibre of history, as the working-class and lower-middle-class communities of Scunthorpe and Grimsby turn their backs on Labour — in the case of the latter for the first time in 74 years.
After speaking to voters, activists, and the defeated Labour MP Melanie Onn, who has represented Grimsby since 2015, to put this rejection down to Brexit is too simplistic. Instead, Labour’s decision to ignore millions of its Leave-supporting voters was reflective of its transformation towards becoming more closely aligned with the politics and character of Britain’s metropolitan cities.
Melanie Onn explained how voters, ‘were totally put off by a leader that they just didn’t think was for them. Where people were very upset about Brexit they also quickly moved on to the leader’, something Aaron, a local Labour Party branch manager and Corbyn supporter in Scunthorpe agreed with, admitting; ‘Corbyn and Brexit are on a par here’, for the reasons why Labour lost.
The feeling of anger amongst voters directed towards, the defeated Labour MP for Scunthorpe, Nik Dakin over his refusal to back Brexit in Parliament was evident on the comments page of a live Facebook Q/A session he did on the night before polling day. Within 54 seconds of the broadcast, a voter asked ‘why should I give you my vote’ when you ‘voted against it every time’. A minute later another voter commented, ‘how can you talk of democracy’ when you have voted against the wishes of your constituents. Both Scunthorpe and Grimsby were over 60 per cent in support for Leave.
A common complaint made by voters to Labour activists campaigning in Scunthorpe was that their MP had betrayed them, with Dakin being called a ‘traitor’ on numerous occasions. Across some of the town’s popular Facebook groups and local media pages, memes can be found playing to this complaint. Aaron complains of a parliamentary party not listening to its ‘northern members’ when it pushed for a second referendum, and is angry over Dakin’s apparent alienation from many of his Labour voters over the issue, saying the former MP had told him that only Tory voters in Scunthorpe had voted for Brexit.
In contrast, Melanie Onn had resigned from the Shadow Cabinet and defied the Labour whip over the Brexit issue, most recently supporting Boris Johnson’s deal. Yet despite her pro-Brexit stance in Parliament, she was still caught up in the destruction of Labour heartlands, suggesting the anger towards Labour ran deeper than the party’s stance over Europe.
‘It was the culmination of four years of unrebutted attack’, she told me. ‘I ‘had everything from Corbyn’s association with Hamas and the IRA’ and ‘concerns about the UK being an open door to migration, when we were failing to look after the people we’ve already got’. The latter comment resonates with a feeling reported by local voters; namely, that Corbyn and his policies were unrelatable. Aaron says people were prepared to disregard Johnson’s background, ‘especially compared to Corbyn talking about his manhole covers’ — an interest few could ever share. Interestingly, he also touched upon how voters did not accept Labour’s accusations of racism towards Johnson:
‘with people not really thinking the letterbox comment was that racist. I am from one of the worst council estates in Scunthorpe, I’m working class, and Johnson talks and acts more like the working class than Corbyn does’.
Pollsters have reported how Corbyn’s refusal to stand up to Russia over the Salisbury poisoning incident was something that made a significant dent in his popularity, among traditionally patriotic communities. Melanie Onn agreed, saying that voters in Grimsby complained about Corbyn’s ‘refusal to sing the national anthem’.
Underlining all these reasons though, was a significant long-term decline in the number of people trusting Labour to be able to manage the economy. A number of activists in Scunthorpe told me about voters praising the Tories for wiping out the debt or saying that the ‘national debt had been halved’. Despite some policies being popular amongst voters, particularly the renationalisation of the railways, the Labour manifesto only exacerbated the party’s lack of credibility with big spending pledges not believed by voters and an economic plan that people told Onn, ‘seemed to be going back to the ’70s rather than forwards’. Concerning the economy, she also said how ‘the link to the Tory Government not investing in public services was not strong enough because voters had a belief Johnson would deliver’.
Despite Labour’s failures, it is worth noting the success the Conservatives have had in reshaping themselves into a party that the people of Blyth Valley, Wrexham and Redcar could associate with. This was arguably a process long in the making, with Brexit accelerating such a transformation and with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reporting that Labour, ‘has been losing support amongst working-class voters since the late 1990s’. Perhaps more troubling for Labour is how over the last decade, both Scunthorpe and Grimsby have experienced ageing populations, and according to Electoral Calculus data, current local demographics point to national, social, and class positions being more akin to those of a typical Conservative voter today.
Last week’s incomprehension at the result from the Labour leadership and its loyal supporters reflected how the party has abandoned the values, beliefs, and identities of its mainly working-class heartlands. The cabinet and leadership live in and talk to a different world than the one inhabited by the lost voters of Scunthorpe and Grimsby. According to Glen O’Hara, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University, the party’s stance on Brexit and the election of Corbyn as leader ‘spoke to London’ and ignored millions of others.
Although some voters reported how their vote was lent to the Tories in order to get Brexit done, the opportunity Johnson presently has in these areas to cement his support should not be underestimated, now that he has prised the door open. Melanie Onn urges the membership to choose the next Labour leader as someone who will ‘most worry’ the Prime Minister at the despatch box over his weakest subject — detail. She adds, how people in ‘our area need to know we are backing them; specifically working families to get on in their lives the way they want to’. Similarly, Aaron in Scunthorpe advocates the election of a leader who is a proper working-class person, with a normal job. He asks, ‘where are the bricklayers, someone with a backstory relatable to the voters in this area’.
Labour needs to reconnect itself with the lost voters of its northern heartlands. And the first step is to listen to their anger.