A Perfect Storm

In 2020, I started to write up several essay type blogs on my thoughts on what was happening in North-East politics and in particular the Labour Party.

This in turn was building on a blog I wrote back in 2017 concerning Labour and the North East (here), I got bored, and then Hartlepool came along in 2021. This is the introduction to about 5-6 pieces, depending on editing, which I wrote last year providing a personal assessment as the root cause of Labour’s woes in the North East and what can be done to tackle it.

But before we get started, I’d like to thank Dave Lee, a writer, director, producer, and self-appointed arsehole from Hull (my late Dad’s birth city). While we may disagree on the details, I believe we share the same belief that the interests of working-class people will never be served by the Conservative Party. So thank you, Dave, for the humour, suggestions and candour when starting out on this little project last year.

I was born in Labour’s industrial heartlands, Stockton North, which now neighbours a host of Conservative Party constituencies, Hartlepool, Darlington, Stockon South and Sedgefield. Unthinkable a few years previously. 

As with Hartlepool, Stockton North returned a Labour MP in 2019 mainly due to the pro-Brexit vote split between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, which allowed Labour to squeeze through. This luxury, of course, will not be available to the incumbent Alex Cunningham next time round.

Alex and I have a little history. We had both campaigned to be nominated as Labour Party candidate for the Stockton North parliamentary seat. The seat had potentially become available when the mandatory reselection process had been triggered against the sitting MP Frank Cook. We failed, of course, and Frank went on to win another term.

I then fled to pastures new (with much relief to all concerned, including myself). Alex stuck around, and in due course, was crowned Frank’s replacement.

The simple point I’m seeking to make here is that I not only know the North East from my heritage, given I was born there. I was educated there. I was brought up in a council. My first job for 7 years was working in a foundry, where I joined a union and participated in strikes and campaigns for better conditions and pay. I also spent a decade as an elected Labour Party councillor on the local authority.

I’m immensely proud of my North East DNA. Something most people have been abundantly aware of as I’ve moved around the country due to work, Lambeth, Greenwich, Salisbury and of course Bristol.

Up until the pandemic, I’ve also been a frequent visitor to my home town and region. Quietly, as an observer, witnessing the subtly changes, the frustrations and undercurrents eroding political foundations.

To suffer an election as Labour did in 2019 hurts. I recall the same feelings during the 1980s and hoped that I would never endure those emotions again. It was not the loss, this time, but its magnitude and manner.

In February 2020, I started to write a series of essays about my personal opinions on how Labour was managing to get it so wrong in the North East amongst mainly white working-class communities. My thoughts, of course, carry no more weight on this subject than anybody else. I guess my frustration, like others, is that we saw what was coming, but nobody was prepared to listen until it was far too late. So I write these words from the heart and personal experience because hearts need to be won back.

The 2019 election in the North-East was a perfect storm. An inadequate campaign, twiddling core vote, a feeling of being forgotten and taken for granted. The region had been in pain since the industrial collapse of the 1980s. It badly needed something different. Something it could believe in, which touched its nerves, its self-doubt and help rebuild its confidence, identity and restore a sense of pride, of power.

Its political class was more than adequate at reflecting its hurt. Though often impotent at constructing a compelling vision offering the economic and social stability enjoyed by other regions. A clear vision passionately advocated by leaders they could believe in.

The 2019 Conservative Party election campaign was specifically designed to correlate with a broad set of concerns, which had been vibrating away in the North East for some time. These concerns may have been packaged around Brexit and the personality of the Labour leader. However, the dark forces at play were changing the Conservative Party too.

The old elitists in the Conservative Party born from traditional capital, wealth and hereditary power declined. Those with new money with greater adherence to radical libertarian principles were in the ascendency in the Party of Wealth.

The traditional Conservative Party, last led by Theresa May, and its Christian traditional value base has been subjugated. It is now led by a new political class with close ties to American right-wing agitators and institutions.

Johnson is nothing more than a public puppet who initially thought Brexit and exit from the Single Market wrong. Having sold his soul to those who view democracy as a dictatorship of the majority, he is now effectively held hostage. During my near 20 years of working in London local government, including the period Johnson was Mayor. His administrations were viewed with embarrassment, and rumours were frequent of nepotism. However, he does not have a monopoly on this front.

He was good at portraying an interest in people. Often shadowed by a hapless adviser whose sole role seemed to be capturing the endless promises he inadvertently would make. Johnson is not only a serial truth twister. He also has sociopathic tendencies, who enjoys being popular though riddled with self-doubt and confidence when challenged. He gave the impression of being prepared to say absolutely anything to bolster his fragile ego and shore up his endless desire to be liked.

The Jennifer Arcuri incident and the allegations of preferential contracts were no surprise, like the outrageous PPE contracts during the pandemic. As an old colleague who worked in City Hall at the time said to me, “same shit, just a bigger pie.” He is more of a Del Trotter than a cunning mastermind of Black Adder proportion.

A political Del Trotter, wheeler, dealer, laughed at but nonetheless admired by working-class people. The little man struggling against the odds as he dodges a little rule here, giving a cheeky wink there, all rolled up in his bumblingly self-made caricature. It was a caricature able to exploit the fractures in social coalitions increasingly prevalent in North East white working-class communities.

Labour are losing seats in areas where it had once dominated the political landscape. Although recovering in Wales recently, the truth is Labour’s core vote has been in decline throughout its traditional heartlands (Scotland, the North East and the Midlands) for two decades. The dark forces of nationalism, for many years, yes, have been at work. Still, they don’t account for the misfortune the Labour Party is enduring.

During the peak popularity of the Corbyn period (2017), Labour still failed to convince a majority of people to vote the party into power. No amount of belly searching, the suggestion of inner-party sabotage. Having the benefits of being the most extensive political Party in Europe can hide that fact, Labour lost.

They lost against a disastrous Conservative election campaign, appropriately recognised as one of the worst election campaigns in modern history, with a PM losing credibility every single day of the campaign. Still, in 2017, Labour lost in total votes, and the Conservatives still out-performed Labour in many vital constituencies. A large chunk of the 30 seats gained in 2017 was to be lost in 2019.

On the surface, it would also seem the most significant benefit in the collapse of the UKIP vote (down nearly 10.8%) in 2017 was Labour (up 9.5%). The underlining argument being, if Labour had maintained its Brexit policy of respecting the vote to leave the European Union, then it would have fared better in the 2019 election. I’m not convinced.

Between the 2017 and 2019 general elections, Labour had lost almost 10% of its voting base. Looking further back, neither Blair’s (1997) or Corbyn’s (2017) election results have managed to eclipse the level of votes the Labour Party was enjoying 6 decades ago.

The Beast of Bolsover, Denis Skinner, did not lose his seat simply because of Brexit in 2019. His 1997 majority (close to 30,000) had been chipped away bit by bit, and like an eroding coastline, it finally collapsed. Brexit may have been the final straw that pushed matters over the edge.

Bolsover, like Sedgefield, is the very constituency where a set of growing resentments and social changes were taking hold in predominately white working-class communities.

The 2019 Conservative election campaign had no guarantees. It was high risk, although devastatingly designed to breach the mythical red wall. It was a mixture of luck and strategists targeting northern working-class concerns, grievances, albeit with the irony they had been the architects of many of these grievances. More importantly, from the Trump textbook, they began to learn how to exploit these grievances.

It was a campaign confident enough to believe Blyth Valley residents (17,700 Labour majority in 1997) were able to be persuaded to vote Tory for the first time in their lives (712 Tory majority in 2019). However, the Conservatives were safe knowing that Tory marginals would never vote for a Corbyn led Labour Party.

Ultimately, Johnson is an opportunistic shapeshifter. He will be difficult to dislodge in the North. It can be done, but to do so needs an understanding and acceptance of how we got here in the first place. 

Next up, born and breed.

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