Labour's working class voters are now Hove baristas, while Blyth puts its trust in common blokes like Boris

The people of Blyth decided to confirm their distaste for the establishment by putting their trust in common folk who understand what it’s like to live in an former shipyard town – people like Jacob ‘always drilling a rivet’ Rees-Mogg

Mark Steel
Friday 13 December 2019 14:41
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In any half decent, rational society, if you discovered Boris Johnson had stood to be prime minister and received 70 votes, you’d think, "Oh that’s depressing". He shouldn’t stand a chance on grounds of incompetent destructive stupidity, just as you wouldn’t go up to the bloke who dances in a circle all day outside Poundland, waving a plastic bag full of fish heads, and ask him to rewire your electrics.

Clearly, for some people, "Get Brexit Done" is everything; no evidence the person shouting this is a sociopath who has contempt for them makes any difference. It doesn’t matter that it will be years before Brexit gets done, or that the man promising to be tough on their behalf hides in a fridge rather than face Piers Morgan and his colleagues - the words are enough. It suggests Brexit ought to be registered as a religion. Whenever someone says "this isn’t what anyone voted for", or "the government’s own reports say it will be a disaster", they can say "aah, my friend! Brexit works in mysterious ways."

You can’t blame Labour’s defeat on the press, because the press were always going to be this foul. But it’s still worth imagining just how it may have been presented if it was Jeremy Corbyn who had hidden in a fridge on the campaign trail. Imagine if Corbyn had refused to turn up for interviews, expelled former ministers from his own side, or if a relative of Corbyn's announced that the British public are illiterate. Imagine if Labour had doctored films to show their opponent looking like he couldn’t answer a question, or Corbyn angrily snatched a phone because it showed a picture of a sick child left on a hospital floor.

In any of those events, Homes Under the Hammer would have been cancelled for an "It’s a Corbynastrophe" special, with presenters so excitable the studio would erupt and Laura Kuenssberg would have to cling to the camera crew to stop falling into the lava.

Two days before the election, the first five minutes of the BBC news was about a Labour MP saying in a secretly recorded phone call he didn’t think Labour could win. So a historically crucial period in history was reduced to office tittle-tattle. If they’d been on the air in 1066, the Battle of Hastings would have been reported as "Harold overheard claiming armour makes his nuts itch.

But it’s about more than that. It would be easy to blame the vague language of Labour’s campaign, such as "protecting workers’ rights", which is so unspecific the manifesto might as well "we will protect being and existence". There was no honest discussion about antisemitism on the left in general, and for a year, Brexit split the party – between one faction angered and another bewildered. Other policies, which could have been exhilarating – such as nationalising broadband – weren’t explained effectively, made little impact, then were barely mentioned again.

If all those issues had been addressed, Labour would still have been stuffed. Just by slightly less. The reason is this: people in areas that usually reliably vote Labour voted Tory to "get Brexit done". But don't forget the original Brexit vote was a cry of the unheard against the establishment. Does this make sense?

So the people of Blyth decided to confirm their distaste for the establishment, those remote London types who don’t listen to them, by putting their trust in common folk who understand what it’s like to live in a former shipyard town – people like Boris Johnson and Jacob ‘always drilling a rivet’ Rees-Mogg.

Perhaps it’s more complicated than that. People in towns such as Workington and Wolverhampton voted Labour from the 1920s onwards because they were connected to institutions that were chained to Labour. They were members of unions, housing groups, and social clubs that were Labour.

The unions still exist, and you still get annual speeches at Labour Conference from the general secretary of the National Union of Huge Metal Objects and Allied Forklift Trucks. But they have few members, those ties are mostly broken, and there's no automatic win for Labour in those areas now.

Not everyone who voted for Brexit moans about immigration, but the Leave campaign made that issue a central part of their message. In areas where industry has declined, stability disappeared and it feels like local residents don’t matter, there’s an opportunity for politicians to insinuate that their problems are due to outsiders, like the EU and assorted foreigners.

Maybe these areas were heading this way anyway, away from Labour and towards the right, and Brexit was only the vehicle that accelerated that transformation. A similar process has happened around the world in former industrial areas. It's where Trump won much of his support in the US; now he’ll probably make his slogan for re-election "Get Brexit Done".

There will now be squabble about who becomes the next Labour leader, but the bigger problem is how to offer hope to enough people in Dudley and Scunthorpe. Whatever Labour does, it has to keep the mostly young, always enthusiastic and imaginative crowds of several hundred that gathered every night in dozens of constituencies, to make the Labour case.

Whatever you feel about Corbyn, his desire for a more compassionate country was what drove him and is what motivates his supporters. Or maybe this is naive, and they were just thinking: "Hee hee, if I get Labour elected, they’ll cancel my tuition fees which more than covers the Travelcard to get here."

This generation has created a modern Britain where, behind Labour’s disaster, they also won in southern areas that would have once seemed impossible. Eventually we’ll be the exact opposite of what we were in the 1980s, when the north was Labour and moaned about the Tory south.

The Labour heartlands will be Hove and Canterbury. Website designers and coffee shop baristas will say "we went on strike against zero hours contracts, but up north they don’t care. All Tories it is up there, it’s alright for them in Bishop Auckland, they have no idea what it’s like here in Putney."

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