Labour’s towns problem
Without turning around its electoral performance in English towns, it is hard to see how the Labour party can forge a path back into government
At the 2017 election Labour achieved its highest vote share since the landslide of 2001, with 40 per cent of the vote. Despite this marked improvement, the Conservative party also increased its vote share compared to 2015, and even took five seats from Labour mitigating losses elsewhere. In fact, in England, despite being a good night overall for Labour, the party went backwards in 126 seats, with a swing to the Conservatives.
Very few of these 126 constituencies are in England’s ‘core cities’. A few are rural seats, but most are in towns in the midlands and north of England: Ashfield, Bolsover, Mansfield, Walsall North, Dudley North, Dudley South, Rotherham, Chesterfield, Burnley, Barnsley East, to name just a few. Many of these seats remain safely Labour, but the direction of travel shows that even in an election where Labour closed the gap significantly on the Tories, Labour is struggling to win back trust in many of what would once have been considered its traditional heartlands. Analysis by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) shows that on average, the swing to Labour in towns was less than half that in core cities.
The 2018 English local election results only confirmed Labour’s towns problem. In London, while not hitting the heights of more fevered expectations, Labour held its own and continued its dominance of the other core cities. Yet in several local authorities based around towns Labour actively went backwards, for example losing control of Amber Valley, Nuneaton and Derby, with its performance in those councils helping supress the party’s national vote share. It is clear that a year on from the Corbyn surge, Labour’s lacklustre performance in English towns is a stumbling block to getting the party into Downing Street.
It also matters for the long term because it could lead to a fundamental shift in the Labour coalition, similar in magnitude to the breaking of the New Deal coalition in the United States that lasted until the late 1960s, where southern Democratic heartlands and ‘Yankee’ Republican districts flipped. If Labour is forced to appeal to ever-more affluent voters in the home counties to compensate for losses in northern and midland towns, the party will have to change beyond recognition.
But the stakes are also high for Labour’s more immediate electoral prospects. The party’s list of target seats it must gain in order to win a majority is more evenly balanced between constituencies in the north and south of England, but again most contain at least one town with a population of 25,000 or more but are outside the core cities. Among the top 64 targets it needs to win a majority of one, 42 are in England, and of these 31 are ‘town’ constituencies. To lay the foundations for a two-term government strong enough to really transform Britain, Labour should be aiming for something closer to a hundred-seat gain. Of its top 100 targets, 63 are in England, of which 49 are ‘town’ constituencies.
Put simply, Labour cannot win without making significant progress across England’s towns.