Richard North, 23/12/2019  

With the excitement of the general election over, we drift gracelessly into Christmas with little real idea of what the future holds – even if Johnson's fanboys continue with their mindless drivel about the "brilliant" trade deals awaiting us.

Meanwhile, it is left to the likes of the Guardian relentlessly to trawl over the reasons for Labour's defeat, a process close to private grief but for the fact that we need a functional opposition if our system of government is to work properly.

Amid the torrent of post mortems, though, we have Alex Niven, a lecturer in English literature at Newcastle University, who is beginning to talk a certain amount of sense.

"The North has changed", his headline declares, in part. And if he had stopped there, his point would have been well made. But his headline goes on to say that (or, at least, imply) that the route to recovery requires that Labour "must recognise that". Niven then adds that, "Grassroots activism alone won't address the party's problems. It needs to commit to devolving power to the region".

What marks the piece out, of course, is that Niven at last has recognised the obvious, something I've addressed more than a week ago, and Pete wrote about on Saturday.

Niven starts his dissertation by reminding us that there is no getting away from the fact that Labour suffered a northern rout in the general election. Big urban centres, such as Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle remain Labour strongholds, he says, as, more precariously, do smaller cities such as Sunderland, Hull and Bradford. But they are now isolated islands in a sea of Tory blue.

Actually, he's not right about Bradford – as long the city remains the fiefdom of the Kashmiri Moslems, it is safe enough for Labour. But Hull is another question.

Three years ago, a report found that Hull has the lowest UK average wages, on the face it lining up the city as a Labour stronghold. But things are not all that they seem. This more recent report tells us that, professionals working in Hull "are officially" amongst "the richest workers in Britain in 2019".

This is on the basis not of actual salaries but on disposable income. And, by this measure, those working in London, Manchester and Bristol are the poorest in the country, having to suffer high living costs which erode their salary advantages.

And therein lies one of the clues as to why the big cities remain, for the moment, Labour strongholds, while the party not only lost marginals such as Bishop Auckland, Darlington and Stockton South, but also relinquished supposedly safe bets such as North West Durham and Blyth Valley.

Niven thus observes that "the large and inspiring grassroots mobilisation we saw in recent weeks" mostly failed "to have any substantial impact on a final, disastrous outcome". So now, he says, "all the talk turns to what must be done", with "most analysis" agreeing that Labour has to win back its former heartlands.

And here we get to the "money quote", with Niven pointing out that, "a major problem is that these heartlands no longer exist in any concrete demographic sense". The northern industrial communities that gave birth to the Labour party more than a century ago, he says, are now neither industrial nor especially coherent as communities.

Furthermore, he says, this crisis is not merely a quirk of the latest election – it is long-running and structural:
Prior to the deindustrialisation of the northern economy in the late 20th century, entire villages and towns in areas such as County Durham would share the same workplace, worship at the same church or chapel, drink at the same club and attend the same trade union meetings. When it came to election time, almost everyone would vote instinctively for the Labour party, because it was visibly an extension of their community's interests.
It was exactly those points that I was making here and again here, in the latter article producing a graph of the Bolsover vote, which showed how the Labour vote had been eroding over a considerable period. This confirms Niven's observation that the "crisis" is not merely a quirk of the latest election. It is indeed "long-running and structural".

And Bolsover is not a one-off, an "outlier". Look at the graph for Bishop Auckland (above): the similarity is striking. And, as I have already pointed out with Sedgefield, Bolsover and, to an extent, Dewsbury, it is, as Niven avers, "the evaporation of this cultural backbone, far more than anything else, that has led to Labour's collapse in its northern territories".

Over the past four decades, says Niven, industrial communities have been thoroughly desocialised and depoliticised – first by the surgical removal of heavy industry and the crushing of the unions, then by the deliberate unwillingness of neoliberal governments from Thatcher to Blair and Cameron to meaningfully regenerate northern areas.

As Pete pointed out earlier, the "working class" to which Labour was pitching policies no longer exists. Niven, however, is searching for ways by which this process can be reversed and Labour's electoral hegemony restored, a problem which journalist James Bloodworth also addresses, with a special focus on the town of in the Cannock Chase constituency.

How, Bloodworth asks, do we reinvigorate the sense of community in an era of Amazon, Netflix and a more generalised contempt for the folk who choose not to leave the towns they grew up in?

The brutal answer, though, is that we don't. The transformation of the Labour heartlands is not a static process. Taking the example of Rugeley, Bloodworth describes the town centre as having a "ghostly air", with "blackened brick dwellings, dwellings which once housed the town's miners and their families have - since the shuttering of the pits - been partitioned and turned into buy-to-let properties".

But, all that is to change with the production of a masterplan to transform Rugeley Power Station into 2,300 homes, housing for the elderly, commercial buildings and a primary school. That will add maybe another 3,000 potential voters to a constituency which already has a 20,000 Tory majority.

Going back to Niven, he argues that the cause is not lost. The Labour Party, he says, needs to think ambitiously and on a grand scale about a radical political strategy for delegating power to the North and winning back these voters en masse.

But he seems to ignore his own conclusion that the changes he has observed are "structural". If the Labour Party is to overcome its defeat, it too will need to look at making its own structural changes. If the traditional working class no longer exists, a traditional Labour Party cannot prevail.

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