Election notebook: While the big cities feel the Corbyn surge, working-class voters in the regions are backing the Tories for the first time

Brexit and security fears are driving working-class voters to the Conservatives. 

Josh Neicho
7 June 2017
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Image by Josh Neicho

In Kirk Sandall, a suburb of Doncaster, electrician Malc says enthusiastically that he is backing Theresa May in the general election as Brexit is the big issue for him. He voted for Tony Blair, he’s ashamed to say now, and voted UKIP in recent elections. He thinks lots of working people locally will vote Conservative, but adds ruefully that there’s not much point as a “chimpanzee in a red rosette would win” – perhaps too despondent since UKIP, which came second with 1,300 votes more than the Tories last time, isn't standing. Conservative candidate Tom Hunt, a young Cambridgeshire councillor who campaigned for Leave in this area, says he may come from a different background from his voters but he shares their patriotism much more than their Labour MP, Corbyn’s former chief whip Rosie Winterton. Hunt has gutsily door-knocked across the constituency with a tiny team and no voter data. Labour, as of a fortnight ago, was worried enough to have reportedly drafted in a campaign manager for Winterton.

In Hartlepool, Billy, a former welder, is voting Tory for the first time aged 72. “Labour has always been here and they’ve voted for themselves not the town,” he says. “Corbyn is an idiot, he’s lost the plot. [The response to] Manchester showed the best of British. Theresa May is a strong woman, she’ll put the North-East on the map”. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, ex-Portmeirion pottery employee and life-long Labour supporter Jeff thinks May can get the best deal from the EU and can’t see himself voting for Corbyn, though he concedes he’s principled. He is additionally annoyed with local MP Paul Farrelly, who voted Remain and against triggering Article 50. Jeff’s partner Kerry is of a similar mind. She has a minimum wage job at Keele University, taking home less than she did when she worked in the car components industry 10 years ago. Thinking of the number of students in each hall at Keele, she’s bemused by how Corbyn believes he can afford to abolish tuition fees, and under a reformed immigration system she’d like to see only skilled workers come in.

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Life long Labour supporter Jeff and his wife Kerry will be voting for the Conservatives But there are limits to the Tories' breakthrough

While Hartlepool retirement home manager Kathy has been left completely disillusioned by Labour MPs for her hometown, she is scathing about the Tories – May “doesn’t know what she’s going to do with Brexit” and “Labour could hardly do a worse job with the NHS”. (Her ideal solution: give everyone two votes, one for PM, one for their local MP). Joanna at North Shields Unionist Club is backing Labour in the first vote she has ever cast, because of the impact of government cuts on her children. The people she knows who will be voting Tory are converts from UKIP, not direct switchers. Richard Angell of think tank Progress, who has toured 33 constituencies, reckons the 'gap year Tories' and parachuted candidates that the Conservatives are putting up in some northern seats in a chaotically rushed selection won't cut much ice with locals. And to consolidate themselves as a national party, the Conservatives need to restore their position in northern cities where regardless of demographics, YouGov found in 2013, they are still seen as an alien presence without local interests at heart. The Conservative candidate in one leafy Manchester suburb tells me that the better off voters are, the ruder they are likely to be, and the absence of a local organization means it’s a struggle just to make the party’s arguments heard. 

Conservative campaign: If you can meet with triumph and disaster

With Lynton Crosby once again running strategy, the Conservatives’ “Strong and stable” and “Coalition of chaos” campaign slogans, and their ceaseless repetition, mirror 2015’s “long-term economic plan” and Labour/SNP “Coalition of chaos”. This time, they are tools to buttress a relentless focus on delivering Brexit, consciously devoid of detail, and on Theresa May as an individual. “Personality politics is simply politics today” says Chomoi Picho-Owiny of Blue State Digital, who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. But 2015 traded on David Cameron’s status of being more popular than his party without seeking to eliminate the visibility of other ministers. In this race, the Conservatives’ habitual backstop of economic competence looks shakier, despite strong fundamentals, due to factors as diverse as the unknowns of Brexit, the persisting deficit, policy wobbles on NIC contributions and business rates, and the legacy of flat wage growth. 2015’s Conservative manifesto was also poorly received; in 2017, all the potentially appealing manifesto lines such as on raising the income tax threshold, capping energy bills or building new council housing have been drowned out by the anger around ending the triple lock, means testing and the so-called ‘dementia tax’. May has dismayed business and economic commentators of both left and right in her underfunding of public services, desire to regulate markets and continuing zest for immigration restrictions (including by keeping international students in the net migration target).

By making the election into a popularity contest, Theresa May has drawn some strong endorsements, such as the Birmingham Erdington voter so enthused that she told her local Conservative candidate Bob Alden she wanted a T-shirt with May's picture on it. But there is a flipside: also in Erdington, I ask a woman what she considers the main election issues are and she tells me in a tone of dark fury, “Her!”

The very personalized attacks on May - some tending to the misogynistic; many coming from women, who support her less than men - have grown as the campaign has rolled on. In Battersea, lifelong Conservative Jean, 87, tells me she can’t back May because of Conservative cuts to child benefit and means-testing of pensioner benefits. She voted Leave, but doesn’t want to see a hard Brexit and thinks May’s lack of natural ease means she will be no good with international partners. Following the London Bridge attack, May's response that there has been "far too much tolerance to extremism" has been seen as a spectacular admission of her own failure as Home Secretary. 

On June 5, Mike Smithson of tweeted: “On April 24 TMay had a net 69% lead over Corbyn in YouGov's "well/badly" ratings. Today Corbyn is a net 3% ahead. Lynton...?” Recriminations over the conduct of the Conservative campaign will follow, and given the circumstances in which the election was called and the Tories' low tolerance of failure from their leaders, they may be compelling. But we should be wary of getting carried away by the drama and superlatives. May's missteps may matter little, because "people fit the facts to fit their opinions of the leaders, rather than the other way around", as the New Statesman's Stephen Bush suggests. The backlash follows unparalleled, groundless levels of support for May and the Conservatives. Many voters, far from the London bubble, will be unreceptive to the changing mood; some will feel sorry for May; many Conservatives will be anxiously chivvying friends and family to the polls. Given their high propensity to vote, will older, traditional Tory supporters who object to the party's social care policies just sit on their hands? 

Labour campaign: Things can only get better

Jeremy Corbyn is an inspiration for some Labour voters, and beyond the pale for others: from the Hartlepool man who tells me “he’s not a leader, he’s a w****r, he’s a thinker” to the Tyneside veterans posting notes warning Labour canvassers to visit at their own risk because of his support for pro-IRA causes during the Troubles. In Whitley Bay, Corbyn enthusiast Eliza Lawson says some people are reluctant to back the Labour leader “because [they feel] they don’t have the permission of their neighbours and families”. Yet counter to the media narrative, there are also those such as Wirral pensioner and Remain voter Brenda who tell me they are not worried by Corbyn and don’t see much difference between him and his predecessors.

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Corbyn enthusiast Eliza and friends

The Labour manifesto has offered an alternative focus for those like first-time voter Anthony, who works in a DVD shop in Erdington, who think the election should be about policy, not leadership. And the reception of proposals such as rail renationalisation and investment in NHS and care workers lends weight to the theory that Labour’s viability demands not on how left-wing it is, but on how well it can sense the public mood. The priority of abolishing tuition fees over fully undoing the Tories’ benefits freeze has been questioned. The manifesto’s affordability and claims to be fully costed have come under scrutiny – revealing black holes over the borrowing costs of water nationalisation and the knock-on impacts of nationalisations on things like productivity. But it has also revealed a certain meanness among those who want to prove such a shift in national priorities isn't workable. I would welcome more illumination from Labour about its thinking on the central plank of its plans – how they will get the top 5% and big business to pay more in tax, replace the money lost from those who choose avoidance or relocation instead, or better, how they bring them around to their way of thinking.

The timing of the election has saved Labour from itself, calling time on damaging deselection battles and forcing it to focus on policies and pledges. Momentum has provided additional battalions of footsoldiers for local campaigns and, as Progress's Richard Angell points out, useful innovations in its car pooling App and its “My Nearest Marginal” tool. Yet the thinking behind the latter, aside from causing controversy over which candidates it directs users to support, betrays a defensive mindset while the Conservatives have had the chutzpah to project themselves deep into Labour territory.

On Brexit, it can be argued the party has been overly reactive, defining themselves to a great extent in terms of what part of the Conservatives’ approach they reject, seeking an arrangement over single market access and free movement which the EU has indicated it will reject, and shying from offering a public vote on the final deal as former shadow business secretary Clive Lewis has suggested. Yet it’s hard to see what choice they had, given the spectrum of Leave and Remain supporters that make up the Labour base.

Lastly, a stronger than expected showing by Labour will blow open the party's divisions again, bolstering Corbyn and sending both wings of the party into agonies of wondering what might have been.

Don’t underestimate the appeal of populism, especially after the London Bridge and Manchester attacks

Economist Andrew Lilico rowed back on a Tweet where he predicted Trump might become popular in the UK, following the President’s crass response to last Saturday’s terror attacks. Yet Trump is the precisely the name UK voters I spoke to from across the spectrum reached for. Hugh Duffy, a Glaswegian based in the West Midlands for 30 years who used to work for Land Rover attacks the Tories’ “Dickensian” sanctioning of benefit claimants and the ripping down of public housing when we have high immigration levels. “Corbyn is trying his best, but we need our Donald Trump” he says. “I’m fed up with all the politicians”. Outside the Trimdon Colliery working men’s club, a woman with dyed red hair tells me that Britain is “the most lackadaisical country. I don’t like Corbyn, I don’t think he has a clue. He’d let them all in. We need someone like Donald Trump who’s hardline”.

The terrorist attacks in London and Manchester had May and even Corbyn reaching for tougher policies to show they will do the utmost to keep people safe. Many voters, not just at the hang 'em and flog 'em extreme, won't be impressed by either. Richard, regional director for Scotland and the north-east for a major retailer and a lukewarm Remain voter, says his primary political concern is for us to “be on the front foot, send a message to people who want to commit terror”. He supports a travel ban and stronger surveillance measures, without being enthusiastic about policies against the burka and sharia courts. He’d rather have a business figure such as Richard Branson or James Caan in charge - “there are so many people who have done great things for this country, who are very switched on,” he says.

Directly after the Manchester bombing Tom Steinberg, former director of mySociety, suggested to me that following the implosion of UKIP the next big political force could be even further to the right on issues such as integration, immigration and the death penalty, while taking libertarian positions on sexuality and embracing radical innovations such as universal basic income. Professor of Politics at Queen Mary Tim Bale thinks this very unlikely, given that few voters share that combination of views. Bale's analysis is clear-headed - and yet parties and pressure groups emerge from all sorts of places, assembling coalitions of support. Recent experience would suggest it would be unwise to discount even more radical movements and pressures on the main parties in the next few years.

Electoral reform

The squeezing of support for the Lib Dems and UKIP, down to 8.1% and 4.3% respectively in Sunday’s poll averages, is partly a reflection of the parties’ unconvincing campaigns, partly a rational response by voters seeking to have the most influence on the result in our first past the post system. It is striking we are here after years of shifting towards multi-party politics; and two years after an election decried as the most disproportionate ever (a protest with popular traction in England, as the SNP won 1.45 million votes and 56 seats, and UKIP 3.9 million votes, 12% of national vote share, and only one seat).

Before the snap election was called, the Makes Votes Matter (MVM) coalition anticipated Labour would adopt proportional representation this year or next year, with shadow chancellor John McDonnell, elections chief Cat Smith and other influential figures of the left and right of the party backing electoral reform. But it didn’t make the manifesto, MVM suggests, in order to keep onside a small number of influential refuseniks. Klina Jordan of MVM says that, perversely, the best outcome for electoral reform could be a hung Parliament and a marked disparity between Labour votes and seats to keep the party interested in reform. She remains confident that PR will be here in the not too distant future. Too optimistic, perhaps, in relying on Labour sticking together and achieving power in a way that doesn’t given them second thoughts about dynamiting the ladder that got them there. 

Voter engagement  

2.3 million people registered to vote in the 5 weeks after the vote was called, more than half of them 18-24 year olds, a step up on the drive before the 2015 election. But this is still a fraction of the 7 million the Electoral Commission estimated were not to the register as the deadline approached. Organisations driving voter engagement and registration are supremely stretched: with regard to current Electoral Commission spending procedures, Mike Sani of Bite the Ballot argues there are experts who can support the targeting of diverse community groups, and it would benefit democracy if funds were allocated differently.

There's bitter disappointment across the field that the Conservatives as a party haven't promoted the importance of voter registration in their social media. Distaste for or resistance to politics remains strong in the young and not so young, particularly among Afro-Caribbean and other BME groups. Two articulate University of Birmingham students studying engineering and construction management tell me that they don't want to vote for the sake of it, they don't know enough about it, and making the wrong decision is worse than not voting. Up the road, Shannon, a bank assistant and gym attendant says her mum advised her to keep away from politics and "it's a bit doom and gloom really". Many echo her view that politicians can't be trusted because they make promises they can't keep, or say there's no real difference between Corbyn and May. A woman in Slough tells me that she leaves political decisions to her husband.

In the next Parliament, let's see politicians as committed to addressing this degree of alienation and apathy as they are to getting their own side elected, and willing to embrace democratic stimulants such as online voting as well as taking prophylactic action against voter fraud.

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