Here's how Labour can rebuild the red wall – starting with my hometown

This rift between Labour’s activist membership and core electorate has led to the party’s worst election result since 1935 – the party must heal it if it is to win in 2023

Karl Eastham
Monday 16 December 2019 13:53
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Former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson: 'Everyone knew Corbyn couldn't lead the working class out of a paper bag'

I grew up in a working-class family along the so-called “red wall”. A former mining town whose First World War heroes are proudly displayed opposite its struggling shopping parade, my hometown of Accrington has been Labour for as long as I can remember – but on Thursday, it turned Conservative.

My dad is a factory worker in the neighbouring town of Nelson, and was recently threatened with redundancy. If some of the enthusiastic, young, liberal London Labour members – with whom I’ve fought many elections as a Labour councillor in Southwark – spoke to my dad, they would be met with polite incredulity. The campaigning Labour Party, its membership and machine are not only unrepresentative of people like him – they are entirely alien to them.

This rift between Labour’s activist membership and core electorate has led to the party’s worst election result since 1935. Yet from the collapse of the vote in Scotland in 2010 to the loss of councils like Burnley, it has been a long time coming. Labour has spoken for but not to its voter base for three decades. Its connection to labouring communities must be re-established.

Labour has to find a policy platform that the small-town working class will vote for and middle-class city-dwellers will campaign for. After all, their concerns are shared: young metropolitans share the economic precarity of my working-class parents, even if they are socially closer to the heart of the modern party.

Yet those whose votes Labour now needs will fear a manifesto they had no role in crafting. Labour can only deliver radical change if that change can be trusted and owned by the mum and dad of a family of four with a car, a mortgage and one holiday a year.

A first step towards this is to stop treating the concerns of the small-town working class with contempt. People in Accrington, Wakefield and Dudley could not have shouted louder about their hatred of Jeremy Corbyn and resentment of a second referendum. Every seat Labour lost in this election (except Kensington) voted Leave. If those people are not heard, we are finished.

A second step, therefore, is to accept that our future is outside of the EU. If we want policies which radically change how society is run, people will have to be convinced it is worth the bother. We will have to trust that people are kind and intelligent, not racist and stupid.

The third step is to find a new leader who can demonstrate two things: first, some experience of life in the communities we hope to represent again; secondly, a demonstrable ability to speak to those communities.

In all of this, the young, London-based, Remainer, media-savvy journalists, commentators and apparatchiks – those who unironically and endlessly complain about the stranglehold that the Establishment have on working-class consciousness, whilst claiming to speak for people who have never heard of them – cannot be front and centre. Rather, those who grew up in those communities, who have an innate sense of working-class culture, must be listened to.

We have five exciting years ahead not only to be radical, but to be trusted. Jeremy Corbyn said that there must be time for reflection. It must also be a time for humility, contrition and reconnection with the people that could not entrust power to us.

Labour should not have believed that my family would come home to Labour at this election. Indeed, the party must dispense with the idea that it automatically or uniquely represents the working-class, and build something truly inclusive of our roots.

Karl Eastham is a teacher and Labour councillor in Southwark.

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