Labour’s purpose

Phil Wilson MP

So that was the election that was.

The outlandish victory predicted for the Conservatives has ended up on the rocks of a hung parliament, with the Labour party believing it will only take the tide to rise once more for Jeremy Corbyn to clamber aboard and sail away at the wheel of the ship-of-state.

Jeremy Corbyn proved he could campaign and the middle classes rallied to the cause. Working people, on the other hand, favoured the Tories.

The world has indeed turned upside down.

Labour’s campaign struck a chord with the young, especially students, and diverse communities. The more middle class the party’s offer the more popular we became. The party also benefited from the Conservative party’s inadequacies. Their campaign was probably the worst I’ve ever seen. Remainers also used the election to strike back at the government and their hard Brexit rhetoric.

But this wasn’t the whole story.

The higher the percentage of working class voters in a constituency the more the swing to the Conservatives. There was a swing against Labour in 130 seats. The highest swing was 8.9 percent in Ashfield, where Labour’s majority was slashed to a few hundred. In Bolsover the swing to the Tories was 7.7 per cent. In Mansfield 6.7 per cent and we lost the seat. All traditional Labour seats, heavily working class.

In the North East the Conservatives achieved their highest vote since 1983. They targeted several seats in the region, including Sedgefield. They gained one seat, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and lost another Stockton South.

I believe the six seats in County Durham prove the point about the dilemma facing the Labour party. County Durham is bedrock Labour. The Labour party exists because of places like County Durham, but the swing there was to the Tories.

Outside of Durham City, all the old coal mining constituencies saw a swing to the Conservatives, from 3.57 per cent in Easington to 1.55 per cent in Sedgefield. Bishop Auckland, Labour for decades, was saved by 502 votes on a swing to the Conservatives of 3.87 per cent – not quite enough but almost.

Durham City was different, a swing from Conservative to Labour of 0.27 per cent. Durham City is a university town, over 20 per cent of the resident population are students. Almost one in three residents hold a degree, and if any part of County Durham voted Remain it would be there. The rest of the county is Leave territory.

The population of Sedgefield is 97.4 per cent white British. 27 per cent have no qualifications, well above the national average, while 5.7 per cent of the resident population are full-time students, well below the national average of 9 per cent.

Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to energise the young and diverse communities is welcome. The direct offer to students to abolish tuition fees from September this year must have helped too; a middle class offer to young people on the whole from middle-class backgrounds. So we win Canterbury, a university town with a huge student population, and come within a hairs breadth of the complete opposite in Bishop Auckland.

For Labour, the party created over 100 years ago to promote and protect the interests of working people, a significant swing to the Conservatives amongst our core support must be seen at least an embarrassment, at most a grim warning that Labour is continuing to lose touch with those we seek to represent.

Don’t get me wrong, to deprive the Tories of their majority is an excellent result, but it is still not the same as winning.

Labour needs to win middle class votes to form a government, but only when in tandem with our core working class support. To win over the former, and not the latter seems to defeat the purpose of the Labour party. Until we solve this conundrum our church will remain too narrow, not “too broad”.

The irony is, I want to see working-class families have middle-class children. You achieve that by investing in education before they get to university and providing decent jobs once they’ve left. Not by subsidising middle class kids, so there is no money left to help those children who don’t have the same start in life.

For Labour to win a sustainable victory at the next election, we do not just need a middle-class hero, we need more importantly a working-class hero. The question for the present Labour party, is whether it’s possible? I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the leader was able to reach out and galvanise sections of the electorate, as long as others are prepared to accept on other doorsteps in other communities the sell was a great deal harder to deliver. Not a day went by during the campaign in working class areas where this wasn’t so. Those who say otherwise either did not canvass or are in denial.

For Labour to be successful at the next election, whenever it is called, all aspects of our message needs to be considered and it is no good shooting the messenger who brings news that is critical.

The route to a sustainable Labour victory will not be found by travelling only the middle class streets of Kensington and the campuses of our university towns, the route must take us through the working-class communities of the North too. To win over the middle classes, but lose the support of the working classes would be the Labour party’s gravest folly.

Today, I don’t want to see the Labour party become a middle-class pastime. Many of our supporters woke up on Friday morning, June 9, feeling good. I didn’t. I wanted to wake up on that Friday morning wanting to do good, something to be achieved only by winning. We failed in our attempt to form a Labour government even in the face of a Conservative party destitute of ideas or real purpose. There is a difference between us and them. Until we work out there is more to Labour’s purpose than just a good rally, the better it will be. Feeling good isn’t enough.


  1. Theo

    It isn’t dishonest or misleading – I suppose it comes down to what your “alternative facts” are. Much of what Phil says is indisputable when looking at the results. Voting based on class demographics IS debatable because it’s based on a broad polling sample. My own experience in an inner London marginal was that some ‘working class’ voters wouldn’t say, some were voting Labour, but yes, some were downright hostile.

  2. simon ray

    This is a dishonest and misleading article. Contrary to what Phil claims at the head of the piece, the swing to Labour was actually stronger among working-class people than middle-class people. Owen Jones nails it here:

    Owen also points out that 9 months ago Phil was tweeting an article proclaiming that “Jeremy Corbyn will lead Labour into electoral oblivion – and that’s a disaster for Britain”. Phil got it badly wrong, then as now, yet there’s not a breath of self-criticism in his article.

    Phil needs to be honest about whether his opposition to the party’s leadership is due to Corbyn supposedly not being electable (surely that Aunt Sally has been punctured now) or if after many years advocating centrism he actually doesn’t like the strongly social democratic manifesto that Labour under Corbyn advocates.

    For years the right of the party told the left that they couldn’t possibly win unless their policies were geared towards ‘middle England’. Now they have changed their tune and are (falsely) making out that the left only appeals to the middle class and can’t reach the working class unless it adopts more centrist policies. A bit more honesty and humility would be nice, Phil.

  3. Peter Warr

    I hope in this interim period before another election Labour is taking on board this message, that they are working hard in these constituencies to understand w/c concerns and most importantly, establishing a firm strategy for countering it. If indeed the issue is with JC’s supposed lack of pateiotism or support for armed forces personnel then that must be directly countered by him and local Labour people.

  4. Daniel Willis

    I certainly agree that Labour needs to be winning almost all of the seats in the North East if it is going to win a parliamentary majority, and that this is the right way forward for the party.

    But I don’t understand the argument that Labour under Corbyn is not reaching out to these voters. Most seats stayed Labour, some (Wansbeck, Blyth, Tynemouth) with over 55% vote share.

    You’re also assuming a great deal of uniformity in “working class” and “middle class” seats. The reality is that people who consider themselves working class and middle class live side by side all over Britain.

  5. jimmy

    all of these seats traditionally supply a large contingency of recruits for the armed forces. I guess the clue has to be in the media lies about Corbyn being an IRA supporter. That is a huge elephant in the room when it comes to defending the labour position on all the other policies

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