In a follow-up to his first hard-hitting guest post, South Yorkshire teacher, Labour voter and trade union activist Andy Searson moves from analysis of the working-class Brexit vote and why New Labour lost the working class to what Labour as a radical movement needs to do to reconnect with those communities and win back votes that New Labour’s approach had driven toward UKIP.
‘A drought of hope’
The Labour heartlands sent a very clear message in the EU referendum: we demand change.
Not mere tinkering or tweaking but real, tangible change. Those heartlands saw that the system, both economic and political, was not working in the interests of their people, the working class. That is not just the politics of the Tories, Lib Dem/Tory pact and their austerity, but also New Labour.
All the aforementioned bought into the neoliberal, trickle-down economic model. Well there was no trickle down, not even a tiny drip, drip. The masses were left in a drought of hope. A desert in which the British promise that every new generation should be better off than the one before disappeared like a mirage.
All the gains that were bequeathed to us from our great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generations were slowly but surely taken from us one by one. Some openly such as the utilities, railways, Royal Mail, our telecoms industry were amongst the best known -imagine what riches a state owned telecoms industry would have brought into the Treasury coffers as the digital age exploded just a few years after Thatcher’s sell off.
Others were done by stealth, such as social care and our NHS. North Sea oil revenues were used to fund the dole queues as Thatcher and her Tories went to war on Britain’s magnificent manufacturing and coal industries – the same industries that had fuelled and enabled the Industrial Revolution and helped put the Great into Great Britain.
A crumbling bedrock
The working class communities that powered those industries were the bedrock and foundation of Great Britain and they were proud to be so. When the time came millions joined the call to arms and fell on the battlefields of Europe while their women rallied to the cause and filled their menfolks’ places in the steelworks and other workplaces to keep the wheels on industry turning.
My grand parents were such people. They also elected the Attlee Labour government to change Britain in favour of the many and not the few. This is the background against which working class people over 35 were born. A proud sense of your community history and your family’s place in the history of Great Britain.
But as the industries in these heartlands began to disappear one by one, so too did the people’s belief that the political elite could change their fate. I lived through the miner’s strike of the 80s and the steel strikes. I remember clearly their slogans. Save Our Steel, Coal Not Dole. These weren’t greedy people. These were people who knew the price of defeat and the cost of defeat to their families and communities and how right they were!
As the steelworks and mines closed so did the wider manufacturing and supply chains. As the dole queues were rising so were the number of shops being boarded up as purse strings became tighter. A whole generation began to realise that they wouldn’t be inheriting the jobs at the steelworks, the mines or within the supply industries of those retiring miners, steelworkers and engineers. You suddenly realised your future had been snatched away from you.
As the years rolled on you realised that drugs were on the rise, cheap alcohol consumption was increasing as people began to self medicate through the despair. Crime soared and for some became the only visible career option. Community cohesion began to crumble as the solidarity brought about by the trades unions & communal workplaces were replaced with the day to day grind of survival.
New Labour walked away
The politicisation via the work place was gone and the politics of the centre became bland. No one was speaking for the Labour Heartlands any more. It was as if these regions weren’t needed any more!
As New Labour began a charm offensive on Tory voters they distanced themselves from the Trades Unions. In doing so they walked away from the working class who made up this movement. Then they began a love-in with big corporate sponsors and donors so the ordinary members who had built the party weren’t needed.
The final insult was the top-down restructuring and elitism of parachuting careerist politicians into ‘safe seats’ in the Labour heartlands. These people had no connection, no shared life experiences with the local people or even a connection to the local area. The disconnect had begun. It was like a cirrhosis eating away at the political voice and representation of the working classes.
When you visit these areas now you will often be met with disdain and a deeply-felt anger at the Labour Party. Many of these people feel betrayed. Their loyalty had not been reciprocated by the party for nearly forty years.
From the mid Eighties, when the people were rising, the Labour leadership walked away from the fight. On every occasion, from the steelworkers to the miners, from Liverpool city council to the Poll Tax – the Labour Party leadership settled for centrist appeasement and used each battle as an opportunity to hammer its own support.
In short, the Labour Party walked away from its working class roots and embraced its elitist, liberal right-wing. The years that followed sowed the seeds of its demise in Scotland and to some extent in its English and Welsh heartlands. To understand this, you have to have lived it.
Disenchantment and the rise, then fall, of UKIP
This disenchantment, as mentioned earlier, was a result of nearly forty years of disappointment and frustration at having no political voice or authentic representation in Parliament. Let us not forget a large amount of these people had been activists in their communities and workplaces. They had been the beating heart of the Labour movement for generations. With a political mind and a latent willingness to engage in politics, where could they go? No party was listening. No party was speaking for them.
Then, along came UKIP. A populist party, willing to tackle the issues of the ‘left-behind communities.’ Plain-speaking and demonstrating a willingness to offer a voice for the disaffected. They played to the emotions of the working classes, especially the white working class in the industrial wastelands of northern England. They tapped into the sense of nationhood and camaraderie that are common to working class communities (relating back to the sense of pride in their shared history) and they also created and built a false feeling of being under attack (from immigration, multiculturalism and loss of sovereignty).
The Tories quickly moved right to avoid UKIP encroaching onto their xenophobic base but Labour were slow to act. They dismissed UKIP and failed to see their appeal to the working class. Their own liberal, detached view of working-class areas didn’t allow them the necessary insight into the attractiveness of UKIP’s offer.
Surprisingly, UKIP were allowed to set a narrative that Labour’s immigration policy under Blair and Brown (and recent Tory failures in this area) were to blame for the plight of those living in the Labour heartlands. All the social problems in these communities were blamed on immigration and especially the EU’s freedom of movement rules.
The Labour Party centrists, always with one eye on an opinion poll, ran away from the mere mention of immigration and failed to put forward a robust argument to shift the narrative onto UK government’s austerity programme.
This could easily have been proven to be the cause of social breakdown but in the silence, UKIP prospered. They offered solutions – no matter that they were false – to everyday problems faced in the run down communities of the forgotten, voiceless working class. At last someone was going to solve the housing crisis, they were going to stop the waiting lists and overcrowded NHS, they promised an end to under cutting of wages, they were going to fix law and order, they represented a chance to return to having a stake in a Britain that was great again.
In short they offered hope that things could be made better for these areas. Many flocked to the UKIP cause mainly out of desperation to have a political voice. Then Brexit happened. I talked at length about why many in working class areas voted for Brexit in my first article, which you can read here.
Reconnecting and the rebirth of hope
I want to explore how we can reconnect with those Labour heartlands. The referendum delivered the decision to leave. Now UKIP were a spent force, Brexit had been achieved, we were leaving the EU. UKIP had no purpose now and subsequently cannibalised itself. What these working class people wanted now was a party who would deliver on the democratic will of those that voted to leave the EU.
In 2015 something incredible happened. Through their arrogance and ignorance, the right wing members of the PLP allowed Jeremy Corbyn onto the ballot paper for the leadership election. This demonstrated how ignorant they were in relation to the mood in the country and how arrogant they were that it would be a victory for business as usual.
This should have changed everything for the Labour heartlands. Suddenly, there was someone speaking honestly about austerity and the lie that this is how things have to be. Corbyn went on the attack, challenging and shining a light upon UKIP’s Big Lie.
It wasn’t your Polish neighbour or the Spanish nurse causing the issues but the Tory government’s austerity. It wasn’t the immigrant coming in search of a better life driving down wages, it was the employers and greedy businesses exploiting the rules that were to blame. It isn’t immigration putting our social care and NHS under stress it is chronic underfunding and privatisation.
The new Labour leader has smashed every argument that had been propagated during the previous years. That said, there is still a long way to go to stop the UKIP vote switching to Tories, who are seen as the party most likely to deliver Brexit. Why is this mistrust of Labour still there? To answer this question look no further than the small but vocal minority in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
The people who were so badly let down over the last forty years want what is best for their children and grandchildren. They believed in and benefited from the British promise that every generation would be better off than the one before. For the first time in generations, this will not be true.
The only way to reverse this is a transformative Labour government. The 2017 manifesto was a start. It replaced UKIPs false promises with real, tangible policies that would solve Britain’s social ills. That said, to truly secure the Labour heartlands the party MUST ensure Brexit happens. A Brexit that will benefit the majority of ordinary working people.
Not an ‘Uberised’, Neo-Con hard Brexit but a common-sense withdrawal that ensures state intervention, nationalisation and provides a fair but rigorous immigration policy that meets the needs of our economy. Only this will rebuild trust within the communities that have been left behind by New Labour.
We need to reconnect the people in these Labour heartlands to their proud history and past battles within the Labour movement. We need to remind them of how our forbears dreamed of a better future for us in 1945, all the struggles that they fought to deliver the NHS and the safety net of the welfare state.
We need to shout from the rooftops the message that Labour is under new management. We now have a leadership team who will work tirelessly in the interests of our working-class communities. There will be no more betrayals like the Kinnock or Blair years.
Saboteurs and dreamers
Regardless of the dying throes of the New Labour die-hard saboteurs in the PLP, Labour will honour the Brexit vote and will use Brexit to work tirelessly to rebuild the 1945 covenant between the party and the British people.
To do so we need those voices from the past, the miners, the steelworkers, those brave strong women who fed their villages in the Women Against Pit Closures groups to speak up. Re-engage with these people who can tell the younger generations about our history, the need to come together and rebuild what the Tories have taken from us.
Yes, we were the dreamers, but together we ALL can become the builders again. Let us face the future as we did in 1945. Let us unite, be fearless, be proud and create the Britain and future that our children and grandchildren deserve.
The SKWAWKBOX needs your support. This blog is provided free of charge but depends on the generosity of its readers to be viable. If you can afford to, please click here to arrange a one-off or modest monthly donation via PayPal. Thanks for your solidarity so this blog can keep bringing you information the Establishment would prefer you not to know about.
If you wish to reblog this post for non-commercial use, you are welcome to do so – see here for more.