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”by Tom Clark / December 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…