Starmer struggles to stop the tide

After his 2019 general election victory, Boris Johnson judged the mood of the ‘red wall’ perfectly. Throughout the election, voters spoke of ‘fathers turning in their graves’ as they swung their communities for the first time behind a party that had forever been marked by Thatcherism. The Prime Minister understood this. He told them ‘you may only have lent us your vote you may not think of yourself as a natural Tory’.

The concept of voters lending Boris Johnson their vote in the name of Brexit, became a dangerous comfort for some on the left. They wrongly believed that by saying nothing, they could move on from Brexit and thus return to their natural heartlands. They did not understand that Brexit was more than about leaving the EU. A vote for leave spoke to greater questions concerning social values, economic levelling, and a cry from these communities to be listened to by the political elite. A vote for the Brexit Trade Bill in Parliament would not allow communities to simply bottle up such concerns.

In Labour’s traditional heartlands, the position of the Conservatives has moved on from a ‘lending’ of votes. Results from England’s local elections, reflects that the Tory position is becoming established. Voters are now sitting firmly behind the party. To break the process behind this historic transformation, is now becoming extremely difficult.

The national focus after Rishi Sunak’s March budget was on historically high tax rises and thus the media missed a more significant feature. On the front page of regional newspapers in northern seats, were a plethora of headlines that reflected new investment in people’s towns. The Northern Echo hailed the decision to build a Treasury office in Darlington as a ‘Our region reborn as a powerhouse’. The Yorkshire post spoke of Sunak banking on Yorkshire ‘to lead the nation out of crisis’, and The Grimsby/Scunthorpe Telegraph wrote ‘the good news keeps on coming’, reporting £100m put forward to High Street and renewable energy projects.

For many voters, the Conservatives were already delivering. The decision to designate the Humber Estuary as a free port zone, was met with huge delight by local businesses in North Lincolnshire. In 2019 Boris Johnson had promised Brexit and investment. Two years later, these projects were beginning to be built. With each construction, the Conservatives were successfully establishing themselves in these areas.  

This process is what lays behind the acceleration of Tory support in towns located in the North of England, and across the Midlands. Not only are these results reflecting councils ‘catching up’ with their constituency result in 2019, but there are also gains in places that didn’t vote Tory in the last general election. Why? Because across the North, people can see a Conservative vote delivers.

Following the budget, the Guardian and Daily Mirror were outraged that most investment was being sent into Tory seats. They cried this was pork-barrel politics. People noticed. In those places that hadn’t voted Conservative in 2019, they could see their neighbouring constituencies being promised much investment. They wanted some too.

Thus with each piece of investment, the Tories are increasing their support. This is happening amongst people living in towns that voted Tory in 2019 and are grateful to receive such, but also those wanting a piece of it themselves.  

It is this traditional form of politics, that has contributed to today’s success for the Conservatives. This makes the party, particularly at a local level, represented by more people from northern seats. At the same time, as a result of these losses the Labour Party are becoming filled with more members, MPs and local councillors from the metropolitan cities.

This is where the danger lies for Starmer. This morning what do these people who now represent the Labour Party see? If you are a Labour member in Oxford or London it is danger from the Greens. In metropolitan areas, the younger/graduate wealthier vote has swung from Labour to the Greens. In Reddish South, the Green Party gained control of the council from Labour, with a 41% increase in their vote share. The pressure internally will be to placate these younger graduates and wealthier more socially-liberal, metropolitan voters.

For Starmer this leaves him with three major problems:

  1. The long-term demographic process in red wall seats that lends itself to Tory support. With these areas becoming older and remaining whiter than the rest of the country.
  2. A Tory process of investment that continues to boost support, even in areas that didn’t vote Labour in 2019.  
  3. A Labour Party becoming increasingly metropolitan/graduate led, wanting to stem the losses to the Green Party.

In 2019 the majority of red wall voters felt alienated from the Labour Party. They had for three years opposed a Brexit vote that represented their wishes, but also their values and concerns. Labour was not listening to its heartlands but alienating them further. Since then, the Conservative Party has begun to build in these places and paid 11million people’s wages to help them through the pandemic. The furlough scheme answered people’s concerns that they were not listened to by government, and that Westminster didn’t care about them. It formed a direct bond between government and employer. By keeping their wages paid, it answered economic and social concerns.

This is not a culture war. This is not about questions on race or gender issues. This is traditional old-fashioned politics. Listening to voters and focussing on their concerns: delivering jobs and better town centres.

King Canute demonstrated to his courtiers that he had no control over the elements of life, as he prevented to stop the incoming tide. The location of that event was Gainsborough. If Starmer stood by the River Trent today, he would feel the powerless of Canute. All around him the Labour Party is accelerating away from its heartlands. In 2016 the Conservatives decided it couldn’t stop the tide of voters that brought UKIP’s rise, and thus subsumed the party within itself. Politics is about slow changes in attitudes and demographics, and today they are moving away from the Labour Party. Starmer will soon face a choice over which wave to try and follow.

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