Election 2019: A tale of two towns

Comparing the political histories of Mansfield and Huntingdon throws England’s realignment into sharp relief—and raises dark questions for Labour about whether it can ever rebuild the “red wall”

December 23, 2019
Boris Johnson on the campaign trail with candidate (now returned as an MP) Ben Bradley. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images
Boris Johnson on the campaign trail with candidate (now returned as an MP) Ben Bradley. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

They can both be described as English market towns, but beyond that there is little in common between Mansfield and Huntingdon. They are getting on for 100 miles apart, more distant than that on several social indictors, and—for over a century—they’ve been at the opposite end of the political spectrum too.

Mansfield in Nottinghamshire has a mining and industrial past, and today has all the usual post-industrial problems. It had been a pioneer of the railway in the east midlands, and yet for a long stretch of the late 20th century was the answer to a quiz question as the largest town in England without a railway station. But if its luck was often down, it knew exactly where its politics stood. It never returned a Conservative after its creation as a seat in 1885, and for almost a century from 1923—including in years like 1931 when the party was almost wiped out—it returned a Labour MP. Until, that is, Theresa May’s ill-fated Brexit election of 2017, when this Leave-voting community narrowly went Tory, by a slim 1,000 votes, and became the first blue brick in the “red wall” across the midlands and the north.

By contrast, Huntingdon in prosperous Cambridgeshire was firmly on the map way before the industrial age, having been chartered by King John in 1205. Barring two fleeting “liberal moments” around the turn of the 20th century, it has been continually Tory since the emergence of the party system in the 18th century. A generation ago, it was notable not only as the home of the Conservative prime minister, John Major, but as the safest Tory seat in the country—whether measured by percentage majority, absolute majority or total vote share.

It is no surprise that Huntingdon remains Conservative today, with MP Jonathan Djanogly cruising home with a very comfortable 55 per cent vote share on 12th December. What is more striking, however, given the huge recovery in nationwide Tory fortunes since the party’s Waterloo moment in 1997, is that this vote share is identical to what Major scored that year. In this affluent corner of England, which voted very narrowly for Brexit like the UK as a whole, the Conservatives remain entrenched. But they haven’t moved forward one inch.

In Mansfield, where a crushing 71 per cent majority plumped for Leave, things couldn’t be more different. On election day 2019, Tory Ben Bradley, who had only squeaked home in 2017, now cruised home with a stonking majority of 16,000. In proportional terms, he was now 33 points clear of Labour, with an overall vote share of 64 per cent—nine points more than his colleague in Huntingdon.

The transformation of Tory fortunes in Mansfield is not only of interest to nerds who enjoy extraordinary political facts, but also to anyone concerned about the prospects of Labour ever recovering by rebuilding the red wall.

In Bolsover, Bassetlaw and Blyth Valley, together with dozens more former Labour seats in the “British rust belt,” the comforting tale for the opposition is that angry voters have merely “lent” Boris Johnson a vote because of their disgruntlement about metropolitan liberals trying to block Brexit. If the experience of Mansfield is anything to go by, however, borrowed Labour votes may not be inclined to come back home. Instead, the Mansfield case suggests, a town could become much more emphatically Conservative once the old taboo has been broken, and it comes to think of itself as a Conservative place. After all, as the Centre of Towns has been highlighting for years, many of these communities are aging fast. That could lock in a new politics of nostalgia and security for good.

If this analysis is right, then we could be witnessing more than a Brexit-related period of tumult, but instead a lasting realignment of the sort that Conservative journalist and Johnson aid, Tim Montgomerie, foresaw when he wrote about his party’s future in Prospect—where poorer places move right, and richer ones move left.

It’s a plausible case, but it isn’t yet proven. All politics is local, and the politics of towns is especially so. Mansfield has its own particular history of opposition to the hard left—it was the headquarters of the breakaway (or, depending on taste, “scab”) Union of Democratic Mineworkers that parted company with Arthur Scargill and broke the great strike of 1984-85. Although it never actually went Conservative, it was a damn close thing in 1987, with Labour holding on by just 56 votes. It may be memories of that time, and related suspicion of a Left-led Labour Party that drove it into the blue column in 2017, when so many other towns stayed loyal to Labour.

And so, perhaps, different histories in different towns could yet offer Labour a different path back. But to make sense of what just happened in politics—and where it is headed next—all sides would do well to take the time to delve into the very mixed and often unhappy fortunes of so many English towns.