Labour Politics and Working-Class England

Can a Westminster insider explain the Labour Party’s loss of working-class voters and the collapse of the red wall? Jeremy Corbyn presented a historic opportunity that was missed, and a deep structural shift in British politics must be reckoned with.

Former home secretary Alan Johnson (2nd L), Deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson (3rd L), shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration, Gloria De Piero (4th L) and British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn (5th L) attend a launch in front of the 'Labour In For Britain' campaign bus in central London, United Kingdom on May 10, 2016. (Photo by Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Sebastian Payne’s Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England is quite clearly not a book that was written for socialists. As politics columnist for the Financial Times, Payne never attempts to hide his liberal politics, which are outlined less through overt ideological arguments than through his commonsense designations of certain people, ideas, and movements as “radical” and others as “sensible.”

Payne’s ideological preferences aside, the book’s most significant flaw is the astonishing dearth of working-class voices: he speaks to dozens of MPs and business leaders as he traverses the red wall but somehow manages to avoid speaking to almost any workers. He also strategically avoids visiting places such as Preston, where the resurgence of democratic socialism has provided local Labour parties with a new lease on life.

But Broken Heartlands is not another anti-socialist screed written by a liberal who, in ostrich-like fashion, views the only way forward for the Labour Party as a return to Tony Blair’s Third Way. While Payne’s most enthusiastic readers are likely to come from the same ideological bent as him, the book moves beyond other liberal accounts of the 2019 election. This is a warning about the future of British politics, written by a Westminster insider for other Westminster insiders.

Payne’s message to his readers could be summarized as follows: “Most of you believe that the 2019 election result was simply an emphatic rejection of Jeremy Corbyn or an emphatic embrace of Brexit — or both. There is some truth to each of these assertions. But in paying too close attention to these contingent factors, one loses a sense of some much longer-term, structural changes in the relationship between Britain’s two main political parties and the electorate that go back at least forty years.”

This message has obvious merit. First, it is difficult to chalk up the 2019 loss solely to either Corbyn or Brexit, because both factors were present in 2017. To be sure, Corbyn’s popularity had sunk to new lows by 2019, and the adoption of the People’s Vote line by party leadership in 2019 was always going to result in the loss of millions of ballots in Leave-voting seats.1 But what really mattered was not the presence or absence of these factors as live political issues; it was how they were handled by both parties’ campaigns.

In 2017, the Labour Party had a clear, populist message, popular policies, and an impressive “ground game.” Most of the major players trusted one another and cooperated effectively because they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The British prime minister, Theresa May, meanwhile, seemed ineffective, indecisive, and untrustworthy. These factors meant that economic and social issues — not Corbyn or Brexit — dominated the campaign.

By 2019, the tables had turned completely. Labour’s campaign was a disaster, characterized by indecisiveness and inefficiency at every level, a lack of trust between major figures within the project, and the sinister impact of the People’s Vote campaign, which exploited each of these fissures to further the goals of a group of politicians who wanted just as much to destroy the Labour left as they wanted to remain within the EU. The Boris Johnson–Dominic Cummings populist revamp of the Tory Party, meanwhile, proved predictably successful. “Get Brexit Done” will — along with “Take Back Control” — go down in history as one of the most effective electoral slogans of recent history.

The result in 2017 is even more impressive when accounting for the second issue: that Labour had been losing its hold over the seats it lost in 2019 for at least two decades. In their book The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class, Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley show that Labour has been steadily losing support from low-income voters at every election since 1997. Some of these voters have drifted toward supporting other parties, but most of them have simply stopped voting altogether.

Blair’s Labour Party made a critical mistake when it decided to tack to the right on the assumption that its more left-wing, working-class voters would have nowhere to go — but this mistake would not be exposed for many years. David Cameron’s European referendum was the event that finally revealed Labour’s distance from working-class voters in the regions. In 2016, these former nonvoters joined the electorate en masse to vote to leave the European Union.

These voters had a range of motives, of which some were undoubtedly highly reactionary. But from reading the account outlined in Payne’s book (paralleled by my own experiences of speaking to voters in Leave seats during the election), there can also be no denying that many people voted Leave from a desire to deliver a kicking to the Brussels and Westminster establishments. After decades of neglect, both establishments seemed equally remote and unaccountable.

When viewed in these terms, Labour’s results in 2017 are the anomaly that requires explanation. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn managed to reverse a decades-long decline in Labour’s votes in its former heartlands by constructing a broad coalition of working-class Remain voters in the cities and working-class Leave voters in the regions. His message — that the British establishment is united in its disdain for the working people of this country, who need to organize to take back control over their lives — resonated with exploited and oppressed people all over the UK and, indeed, the world.

But by 2019, the battle lines had been redrawn once again — not the many versus the few, but the “liberal metropolitan elite versus the white working class.” Clearly, these categories do not designate real and identifiable interest groups, but this is beside the point. What mattered was the discursive construction of these two groups by the media and strategists within both Labour and the Conservative Party. The Tories reified and sided with the latter group, casting them as the downtrodden victims of “woke” oppression. And rather than rejecting this ridiculous dichotomy, the People’s Vote wing of the Labour Party reified and sided with the former, casting Leave voters as uneducated and entitled racists.

The result was the resumption of a decline in Labour’s vote share in Leave-voting seats that went back decades. Except this time, a long-term decline tipped over into an emphatic break.

Payne’s intended audience missed these factors because they were so invested in believing that Jeremy Corbyn was the source of all their woes. When forced to explain Labour’s success in 2017, they implausibly attribute it entirely to the weakness of the Conservative campaign, despite very clear evidence that the policies Labour put to the electorate were — and are — overwhelmingly popular. When asked about the long-term decline in the Labour vote in some seats, they’ll argue that figures like Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown were “too left-wing.” Payne does little to dissuade his readers of their prejudices.

I personally found the contrast between Payne’s depiction of left Labour MP Ian Lavery, who he describes as “exploding” at one point during the interview, and his fawning portrayal of former home secretary Alan Johnson, whose memoir he describes as “some of the best political writing of the decade,” unpleasant and, frankly, quite unprofessional. The true contrast between the two men’s characters becomes clear when Lavery fairly — and no doubt passionately — describes the issues faced in 2017 and 2019, while Johnson delivers a chilling ethno-nationalist indictment of immigration.2

But while Payne is not writing for socialists, there is a great deal we can learn from his account — both about fissures within the ruling class and about the changing nature of the British electorate. If one can ignore the faint tone of disdain that seeps through whenever he discusses the “hard left” or “Corbynistas,” which occasionally becomes outright bitterness and hostility in the voices of his interviewees, then the book is worth a read.

In fact, I was surprised at how many times I found myself nodding along to many of the points being made in the book. Payne is surprisingly critical of Margaret Thatcher.3 He does not go so far as to repudiate the foundations of her economic agenda, but he does argue that her war against inflation had casualties that were neither acknowledged nor compensated. Some of his interviews with former miners about the degeneration of their communities since the 1980s are poignant. Ex-miners and their families recognize that the work was dirty, dangerous, and environmentally damaging, but there is a palpable yearning for the days of steady employment and, perhaps more important, community.

A more critical understanding of Thatcher’s project would, of course, account for the fact that those most harmed were precisely the people she was trying to discipline into submission, but Payne does not simply dismiss working-class critics of Thatcherism as entitled Luddites, as many of his liberal peers are wont to do.

What’s more, he acknowledges that the regions are still living with the legacy of Thatcherism, as many on the Labour left argued in both 2017 and 2019. Payne admits that he went into his research with some sympathy for Blair and his rigid adherence to the then-commonsense dogma that dominated mainstream economics: privatize, outsource, deregulate.

But he concludes by acknowledging the deep failures made by Blair and his successors when it came to winning the electorate over to these policies. Payne does not and would never admit that these policies might not have been as progressive as they were framed, but he does accede that more could have been done to deal with the dislocation and suffering created during the Thatcher years.

He is also happy to acknowledge the regressive impact of austerity on many parts of the North, and even attributes some of the success of Corbynism to the legacy of the cuts (despite the fact that his paper repeatedly endorsed Cameron and George Osborne’s agenda). With the destruction of employment during the Thatcher years, many of the regions — especially the North East, where Payne was born — became much more dependent on public sector employment, the quality and quantity of which was deeply compromised during the austerity years.

More perhaps than the purely economic legacy of Thatcherism, Payne adeptly chronicles the sense of disempowerment and alienation that many former mining communities have been living with since the 1980s. In the book’s introduction, a small-business owner from Gateshead tells Payne, “Communities, the clubs, that social gathering of people from the same community, that’s all gone.” The “deepening individualism and the dissolution of a traditional way of life” that Payne sees creeping into British society from the 1980s onward had a particularly negative effect in many of the former mining towns he visited, “where lives were so closely interwoven.” One of his interviewees poses the problem starkly: “In the 1980s everybody was in poverty when the pit shut so it was very easy to find someone who was prepared to speak out on it. But now people suffer their poverty in isolation.”

Declinism may not, as the historian David Edgerton argues in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, be an entirely accurate depiction of the British experience during the twentieth century, but it is certainly true that there are many communities that are genuinely mourning the passing of an era characterized by higher incomes, stability, and solidarity — even if the employment available was dangerous for those who engaged in it and deeply oppressive for women, ethnic minorities, and all those excluded from the postwar social contract.

But not every area of the red wall has meekly acceded to this narrative of decline. A significant weakness of the book is the fact that Payne does not visit one of the several communities that have started, some very successfully, to push back against these trends. The most obvious place Payne could have visited to investigate alternative models for the UK’s northern towns is Preston.

Since 2016, local Labour politicians in the Lancashire town have been drawing on insights from deindustrialized cities in the United States to construct a model of community wealth building, using the procurement budgets of “anchor institutions” to create jobs, reduce inequality, and retain wealth in the local area.

Writing in Tribune in 2022, Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown listed some of the successes of the Preston Model, which saw Preston become the UK’s most improved town in the first few years of its implementation. It is worth quoting Brown at length to understand just how transformative community wealth building has been for the town:

In the last three months, we have brought forward the Real Living Wage increase, benefiting over 10 percent of our staff. We are making solid progress with our partners in developing North West Mutual, our regional community bank. . . . We are delivering a £70 million regeneration of our city centre, primarily in municipal ownership, including a new £42 million city-owned cinema and leisure development and a cooperative housing project. . . .

We currently have five new worker-owned firms registered. . . . One newly registered worker cooperative, the Preston Cooperative Education Centre (PCEC), has been founded by members of Preston Trades Council, and is being tasked to work with unions to support new cooperative businesses that their members will own and control.

These successes have been pushed through even in the context of a deep economic crisis, following years of stagnation and rising inequality — both of which had a disproportionate impact on the North of England. And local people have noticed. While right-wing Labour councils performed appallingly across the UK in the 2021 local elections, Labour easily retained control of the council with an impressive share of the vote.

While the national Labour Party has shunned community wealth building — more as a result of its links to Corbynism than out of any coherent ideological rejection of the model — other councils are now taking note of Preston’s success. Local leaders who want to be able to prove to people that voting Labour can actually make a difference in their lives realize that insourcing, building new institutions, and democratizing the local economy is the best way to do just this.

Yet there is no mention of Preston, or any of the councils that have pursued the community wealth building model, in Payne’s book. This is a glaring omission that leaves the reader with the impression that there have been no coherent attempts to tackle the sense of alienation and decline felt in many of Labour’s red wall strongholds. This is simply untrue — but Payne never talks to any of the people involved with these projects, so they are not featured in the book. As a book written by a Westminster insider, for other Westminster insiders, Payne mostly views workers as victims — whether of decisions made by the powerful or of the impersonal forces of global capitalism. Nowhere are working-class Britons featured as potential agents of change themselves.

So who does Payne talk to? He spends most of the book talking to business owners and MPs (including some very important ones — more an indication of the author’s own connections and prestige than a useful addition to the argument). There is a near-total absence of input from representatives of the institutions that formed the Labour Party — the unions — or the people the party was created to represent: working people. At one point, when Payne visits the dystopian “iPort,” he speaks to the port’s founder but none of the workers, despite admitting that the employment is based on “zero-hours contracts, long shifts and strict conditions.”

On another occasion, he speaks to the owner of a large business, Lanchester Wines, who he pitches to his reader as encapsulating the ethic of the entrepreneur: “I’ve always wanted to work for myself. I’m in charge of my own destiny.” Clearly, Tony Cleary is in charge of his own destiny, which is why he was able to start a business — most people in the places Payne visits are not in a position to follow in his footsteps, no matter how good their ideas, given that they can barely afford to heat their homes. Just a few paragraphs later, Cleary decries his workers’ own attempts to take charge of their destinies by unionizing. He was particularly incensed at his workers’ insistence on having a lunch break. He then goes on to attribute the decline of the Labour Party to its close relationship with the unions. Payne simply repeats this accusation, at no point drawing the fairly obvious conclusion that his interviewee might be somewhat biased in this regard.

Even given the complete dearth of the voices of workers, unionists, activists, and socialists — a pretty striking achievement for a trip around the North of England — the picture that emerges from Payne’s book is not unhelpful to the Left. Socialists have spent the last several decades warning that working people are deserting the Labour Party because the Labour Party has deserted them. Or, in the words of one of Payne’s interviewees, “What have Labour really done for people here?”

Blair and his cronies can insist upon all the incredible things they did for the country until they are blue in the face; this will not change the fact that Labour voters in the North of England did not experience a significant improvement in their lives over the course of Blair’s tenure. The Labour right can either dismiss these voters as ungrateful idiots or they can listen to what they are saying — not just that their material living standards have not improved but that their sense of belonging, community, and solidarity have been destroyed by decades of ruthless neoliberal individualism.

How might we begin to rebuild this sense of community, alongside improving people’s living standards? Look no further than the British towns that are pioneering the community wealth building agenda, where socialists are doing what they do best: working together to build a new world out of the rubble of the old.

About the Author

Grace Blakeley is a staff writer for Tribune.