An English Rust Belt?

To win power, Corbynism must challenge a creeping conservative presence in England’s former industrial heartlands.

Trade union banners assemble for the Durham Miners Gala in 2008.

Suddenly we are in the thick of a populist moment, with all the giddiness that entails. Labour’s unexpectedly good showing in the British general election has led to an abrupt and dramatic widening of horizons, in the middle of which Gramsci is quoted casually by broadsheet journalists and the possibility of a socialist prime minister seems tantalizingly within reach.

Leftists in the United Kingdom and throughout the world must allow themselves a moment of dangerous dreaming at this point. “Sensible Labour” has had its day. Over the last month the long-held belief that we should value pragmatism above all else has dwindled rapidly. Indeed, a tragic irony of 2017 is that the late Mark Fisher — who argued so passionately that radical change in the twenty-first century would be sparked by a decisive rejection of “capitalist realism” — is not around to witness how quickly strategic caution is making way for outbreaks of effusive idealism.

The Corbyn surge undoubtedly marks the maturation point of a new and remarkable form of left-populism. But it was not quite popular enough to break through to power on June 8. Is the momentum now with Corbyn to do so at the next time of asking, as current opinion polls show? Or are there deeper structural weaknesses in Labour’s strategy?

This weekend the Durham Miners’ Gala will gather thousands of socialists from across the country to England’s northeast. For the first time in many years there will be a genuine belief that a left-led government is imminent in Britain. But the gathering will take place in a part of the country where Corbynism’s breakthrough was much more uneven — and its future more uncertain.

One of the most satisfying outcomes of the election aftermath was the spectacle of Corbynsceptics eating their words, sometimes literally. But alongside a series of mea culpas, from apparently genuine admissions to bizarre calls for collective responsibility, there have also been a couple of “sorry not sorry” responses which, though mean-spirited, supply interesting caveats to the 2017 Labour success story.

Notable among these was a diatribe by long-time Corbynskeptic Labour MP John Mann, published on the Politics Home website. After somewhat stiffly doffing his cap to Corbyn’s remarkable achievement in “killing dead” the monetarist commonplaces of the last few decades, Mann demanded that Labour now address what he terms the “Bolsover question.”

Mann’s phrase embodies what he sees as a residual problem with the Corbynite formula. Bolsover is a parliamentary constituency in the English East Midlands, which saw a 7.75 percent swing from Labour to the Tories, the second highest of its kind in the election as a whole. Though this was not enough to unseat the Labour MP Denis Skinner (a veteran left-wing firebrand famous for his scathing anti-Tory witticisms) similar swings in neighboring Mansfield and North Derbyshire did see the Tories replace Labour, in two of their very few English gains this June.

Mann sees the red-to-blue shift in the East Midlands as a sign that, although Corbyn might have won the argument in opposing austerity and advocating “fairness” (that nebulous concept so beloved of 2010s centrists) he still struggles to appeal to the “aspirations of the white working class in industrial areas.” For Mann, in neglecting this demographic, “we risk the politics of Trump and the rust belt, or worse.”

Mann’s terms are confusing, recalling the syllogistic jargon of Blairism (thankfully now a passé art form). He argues that Corbyn’s problems with traditional Labour voters stem from his stance on nuclear weapons and terrorism, citing his inability to “unequivocally condemn all IRA violence.”

There are huge gaps in Mann’s social theory. After years of being a buzzword in centrist flirtations with social conservatism, the idea of a “white working class” has come under greater scrutiny recently, revealing this yoking together of race and class to be suspect. Even if such a demographic did exist, are we really to believe that it is, en bloc, militaristic, opposed to Irish Republicanism, and passionate about retaining nuclear arms?

However, while Mann’s “Bolsover question” is clumsily phrased and rooted in Blue Labour cliché, it is not necessarily the wrong one to ask. To borrow an axiom of Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown, Mann seems to have got the right stick, but at the wrong end. Might waning support among a certain wing of the traditional working class be a roadblock lying in the way of Corbynite electoral hegemony?

It is not helpful in this context to draw lazy comparisons with Trumpism and its Rust Belt support base (itself, of course, highly contentious). But it is undoubtedly true that, in some parts of England, post-industrial working-class communities have drifted — albeit tentatively and inconclusively — to the right in recent years, even in a 2017 election that was otherwise a failure for English conservativism.

In the northeast of England, where I live and campaigned for Labour this year, a majority of seats witnessed a swing from Labour to Tories. This points to a weakness in this long-time Labour heartland, a region that has still not fully recovered from the surgical removal of its manufacturing base (coal, steel, shipbuilding) in the neoliberal period.

The Labour-Tory swings in the northeast in 2017 were all relatively modest. Only one constituency, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (a largely suburban seat bordering on rural, Tory North Yorkshire) actually turned blue. Elsewhere, in the depressed former coalfields of Northumberland and County Durham, swings of no higher than 4 percent (usually less) were not enough to overturn solid Labour majorities. Labour gained Stockton South from the Tories on a swing of nearly 6 percent, and blue-red shifts in around a third of northeast seats resulted in dramatically increased Labour majorities in bigger urban centers like Newcastle.

As these nuances emphasize, we should be wary of the sort of regional stereotyping that has become common among the London commentariat in recent years — especially after Brexit and the short-lived “rise of UKIP” gave many an excuse to paint the north as a racist backwater.

Hopefully, the ongoing energy of the Corbynite campaign post-election, now rather wonderfully invoking ideas of permanent revolution, will be enough to cancel out moderate and anomalous Tory gains in the northeast and East Midlands. There was a time-lag aspect to the election campaign: some areas of the country were slow to join the Corbyn surge, but they might well do so now the popular mood has pivoted decisively.

Nonetheless, there is enough evidence of a creeping conservative presence in the English Rust Belt, especially in smaller post-industrial towns like Stoke-on-Trent and Sunderland, to underline that challenging this rightward tilt should be looked on as one of the challenges facing a newly radicalized Labour Party in the ascendant.

The Right of the Labour Party have made this their key line of attack against the Corbyn leadership in the wake of the election, producing research showing the party weakest among skilled workers. Graham Jones MP summed up the concerns of traditional working-class voters as “counter-terrorism, nationalism, defense and community, the nuclear deterrent and patriotism.” If this line was followed it would mean a considerable neutering of Corbynism’s radical potential.

But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem to be addressed. So, what should Corbyn’s Labour do to shore up support in those Labour heartlands that have turned agnostic as a result of years of neglect by successive neoliberal governments, from Thatcher and Blair to Cameron and May?

Given that places like Derbyshire and County Durham were crucibles of organized labor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it seems obvious that a dynamic campaign of re-unionization would be a good place to start. With union membership still in freefall, there is some urgency in the need to organize the disparate workforce that subsists outside of large urban hubs.

Across the north and midlands, the vast majority of workers are caught between the disempowered, wage-frozen public sector, underperforming service industries, and the dark underworld of the Sports Direct economy (tellingly, the HQ of Mike Ashley’s sportswear empire, which has become a shorthand for zero-hours exploitation in modern Britain, are in the Bolsover constituency). Union membership should be rocketing in this climate, not falling to record lows.

It will not be enough for the left-wing leaderships of trade unions who back Corbyn to argue for his policies. There will have to be a renewed focus on building power in the workplace and participation in the unions. This is a message that is already getting across, with supportive general secretaries like the CWU’s Dave Ward recognizing that “we got political almost as an excuse for not being in the workplace and not influencing that change, because that became too difficult.”

Also crucial at this juncture, as possibilities multiply, is a cogent Labour counterpart to former Tory chancellor George Osborne’s now increasingly discredited “Northern Powerhouse” scheme. Perhaps the last great neoliberal passionara, Osborne sought to address the economic disparity between north and south by building up Manchester as a second-tier financial capital and calling for the introduction of boosterist mayoralties in the larger northern cities (Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Newcastle).

As with many conservative chimeras of the 2010s, Osborne’s project now looks absurdly out of date. Labour must seize this opportunity by expanding John McDonnell’s industrial strategy and giving it a populist, regionalist focus. Labour under Corbyn has flirted with this idea — variously announcing both a bank and a council of the North. But, while the manifesto did include references to local finance initiatives and democracy, the specific emphasis was omitted.

These policies were underpinned by the “Northern Future” document, which promised “a dedicated break with an economics that focuses solely on what is good for the City of London.” Its proposals — ranging from industry and democracy to culture and education — should be developed into a compelling offer, one that provides a path to close the chapter on decades of deliberate decay forced on the north by successive governments.

The 2017 election saw a recalibration of traditional notions of class in Britain, with the emergence of a new, Corbyn-supporting proletariat comprised of the precarious young, ethnic minorities, squeezed professionals, and the under-waged masses. All of a sudden, to paraphrase Henry James, we find ourselves supposing innumerable and wonderful things. But, to fully consolidate its takeover of the British electoral landscape, Corbyn’s Labour must stem the Tory trickle in the former mining villages and steel towns of England, and add their marginal voices to an exhilarating new blueprint for twenty-first-century socialism.