Labour is now the party of the big cities, but it's shrivelling in its heartlandsby Jonathan Derbyshire / May 8, 2015 / Leave a comment
Shortly before Christmas, I attended a conference on the future of the European left in Budapest. The British participants were particularly exercised by the fate of what David Goodhart, former editor of Prospect, called the “Hampstead-Humberside alliance”—the political union of the metropolitan liberal intelligentsia and industrial working class on which the Labour Party’s electoral fortunes had long been built.
Two numbers isolated from the blizzard of data disgorged by last night’s general election suggest that this alliance has unravelled—and they have serious implications for Labour. They are 45 and 7,951. The first is the number of seats won by Labour in London (an increase of seven on its haul in the 2010 election); the second is the number of votes cast for Ukip’s David Dews in the West Yorkshire constituency of Morley and Outwood, which helped to deprive Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, of a seat he’d held, in one form or another, for the past ten years. (In Humberside itself, Ukip showed up pretty well, even if they didn’t contribute to any Labour losses—it finished second to Labour in Hull East, and a close third behind Labour and the Conservatives in Great Grimsby, a seat Nigel Farage’s party had long coveted. In any case, for Goodhart’s purposes Humberside is as much a sociological category as a geographical one. In Bury North, for example, Ukip increased its share of the vote by 9.5 per cent, ensuring the Conservatives retained a marginal seat that had been on Labour’s target list.)
In truth, the unravelling began long ago; these numbers simply ratify something that the more clear-sighted analysts of Labour’s predicament have been saying for a while. For instance, in an essay published in Prospect in January and entitled “Labour isn’t working,” John Harris offered a particularly persuasive analysis of what he called a “long process of dealignment” in which Labour has become increasingly disconnected from its own supporters—or rather from those who used to be its supporters in Britain’s deindustrialised zones, where voting Labour was as much as a matter of identity as of preference.
Harris suggested that Labour’s message, under Ed Miliband, on issues such as inequality and the predicament of the so-called “squeezed middle” had been drowned out by “a cacophony of noise about identity, belonging and, with particularly serious implications for Labour, what it is to be politically authentic.” And while Labour fussed with policy detail, it left this terrain open to other parties, particularly Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland. Balls is merely a high-profile victim of the hollowing-out of what used to be Labour’s heartlands (as are the 40 Labour MPs who lost their seats in the party’s Scottish wipeout).
If Labour is losing its grip on territory it used to call its own in the English north—and, as Harris noted, in great swathes of the south, it is simply not part of the “political conversation” at all—it is thriving (relatively speaking) in London, where it holds those 45 seats, and other large cities, such as Greater Manchester, where it won 22 out of 27 seats. Whoever succeeds Ed Miliband as leader will need to work out how to put the two parts of Labour’s old alliance back together. It will be easier said than done.
Jonathan Derbyshire will be speaking at How the Light Gets In, the world’s largest philosophy and music festival, running from 21st May to 31st May in association with Prospect Magazine.