Why the North turned away from Labour to the Tories in the general election

Labour supporters in the North have turned their backs on the party, ensuring their general election capitulation. Heather Parry explains why so many voters were willing to take a punt on the 'nuclear option' of Brexit – nothing else has worked

Despondency hit the left-leaning citizens of the UK like a sledgehammer at about 10pm on December 12, when the exit polls of the general election were published, suggesting (as it turns out, correctly) that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, running almost solely on a pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’, had trounced Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, running on a manifesto of radical economic change intended to address the huge and growing inequality in the country.

However, there can be few voters who were as incredulous as those of us from former industrial towns and villages in the north of England, as we saw constituency after constituency turn away from Labour, their long-time party of choice, to the very party that decimated their communities in the 1980s: the Conservatives.

I was born and raised in Rawmarsh, a large village on the outskirts of Rotherham, equidistant from Sheffield and Doncaster. Up until the 1980s, the major employers in this area were the coal and steel industries; Thatcher’s deindustrialisation of the North then turned the region into one of call centres and retail parks, fragmenting community and entrenching low pay, pointless labour and mental health issues in its population.

Towns like Rotherham are often referred to in the media as ‘former mining towns’, which fails to capture the current reality: high streets sit empty, with libraries closed and a sea of betting shops and discount booze outlets cropping up where small businesses once were. My own great-grandmother owned a wool shop on a high street that is now all pubs and dodgy tattoo places; at the top of that road is the empty plot on which the public pool once stood. In the Sixties Rawmarsh Baths hosted pop stars like Lulu in its hall; my mum went there as a young teen for its afternoon dances. It was where I learned to swim, and where almost all my childhood friends had birthday parties – but despite it being heavily used by local schools and families, a true community hub, the pool was closed under New Labour.


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A 2018 report said that almost 40 per cent of children in Rotherham were living in poverty, and my own comprehensive school was placed in special measures in 2013. It’s easy to blame the Tories for this – but it is not as simple as this. Some 30,400 people in Rotherham were suffering from deprivation in 2007; by 2011 this had risen by almost 50 per cent to 44,170. This was the undeniable legacy of the New Labour years. Of course, New Labour’s tenure was preferable to the Conservatives’ reign, which has been marked by at best disregard and at worst outright hostility for towns like Rotherham, but New Labour’s policies amounted to short-term fixes to the symptoms of economic deprivation, not the causes. What places like South Yorkshire need is massive government investment in new green industries and cultural centres, to give their residents fulfilling employment on a living wage, worthwhile skills and a way to build strong community ties again.

It was nothing short of devastating, then, to watch South Yorkshire constituencies fall to the Tories like scarlet dominoes, despite the fact that the Tories caused their economic downturn and will never provide the region with what it needs. In contrast, the Labour manifesto promised £16bn in new investment for Yorkshire and the Humber from Labour’s Green Transformation Fund, creating 100,000 well-paid green jobs in the area.

And when nothing else has worked, and no political party has saved you, why not take a punt on the ‘nuclear’ option?

So why, then, did voters in places like Don Valley, the Rother Valley and Penistone and Stocksbridge choose the Conservatives, with my hometown constituency, Wentworth and Dearne, holding on to their Labour MP by just over 2,000 votes?

While the media’s relentless trashing of ‘Corbynism’ forms a huge part of why Labour were so roundly defeated, in South Yorkshire many will tell you they turned from Labour because of their recent commitment to a second referendum. Leave voters feel patronised and ignored, as if their vote in 2016 was being disregarded. It’s hard to get these voters to give specifics about why they believe so strongly that Brexit will turn around the fortunes of the area, and all analysis of Brexit’s potential impact stands in opposition to this belief; based on the government’s own analysis, economic growth in Yorkshire and Humberside is set to slow by up to 8.5 per cent, with the reality likely to be much worse. But the truth is that nothing short of a radical economic shift will improve the lives of many in northern towns in any real way, and while the media has spent four years attacking a man presenting a workable alternative, voters have been constantly told by the right-wing press that Brexit is the shake-up they need. And when nothing else has worked, and no political party has saved you, why not take a punt on the ‘nuclear’ option?

The tragedy is that places like South Yorkshire will be some of the hardest hit by a no-deal Brexit – which is noticeably back on the table. While Labour’s manifesto offered the seismic change needed, Brexit will exacerbate austerity and further decimate villages like mine. When it becomes clear that Brexit was not the answer to the region’s problems, we can only hope that Labour’s constructive and transformative plan has not been abandoned for more of the same neoliberal policies that have failed Yorkshire so badly over the past 40 years.

Heather Parry is a writer and commentator

Image: Anna Gowthorpe/Getty Images