Labour must not take the North as red
To paraphrase one of the North’s most famous (and perhaps most divisive) figures: Elections? Bloody hell.
Before the election, many people, including within the Labour party, were expecting the Conservatives to win big across the Northern ‘rust belt’, comprising many of the smaller towns and cities that have long been characterised by slow industrial decline and an increasingly older and poorer population.
But by the morning of 9 June it was apparent that this hadn’t happened. Almost all of the key seats that might have gone Tory, such as Sedgefield, Hartlepool and Darlington, stayed resolutely red. In total, the Conservatives gained just two new seats (Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland from Labour and Southport from the Lib Dems), as well as retaining Copeland which changed hands during the by-election earlier this year. By contrast, Labour gained nine seats across the North, including high profile gains in Stockton South and Bury North that exemplified Theresa May’s failure to win over Northern voters.
As the experts and pundits come to terms with the election, there is a tendency to go with the public mood, and suggest that the Tory threat to Labour’s traditional heartlands never materialised.
But this would be premature. A closer look at voting figures reveals that Labour should not yet be confident that the Tory threat to its Northern vote has receded. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the Conservatives did indeed succeed in making inroads into the Northern vote, even if they failed to gain seats.
As was the case nationally, both major parties significantly increased their vote share at the expense of others. Using data from Britain Elects, it appears that Labour increased its vote share from 2015 to 2017 by almost ten percentage points (9.7 per cent), but the Tory vote increased by almost as much (7.0 per cent).
These increases were not uniform in nature. In particular, across large swathes of the North, the Tory vote actually increased by a greater amount than Labour. In the North East, for example, the increase in the Conservative vote was greater than that for Labour in 19 out of 29 seats. In Yorkshire and the Humber, this was 26 out of 54 seats, whereas in the North West, which as a region seems perhaps more resistant to the charms of Theresa May, this was 14 out of 75 seats.
More specifically, there are a number of marginal Northern seats where the Conservative vote share increased substantially more than the Labour vote. Areas such as Bishop Auckland (14.4 per cent), Penistone and Stockbridge (+15 per cent) and Great Grimsby (+16 per cent) saw big gains in the Tory vote, even though the Labour candidate was elected to parliament.
The fact that many of these areas voted strongly for Brexit (which polling suggests was a major determinant of people’s likelihood to vote Tory) suggests that Labour perhaps has work to do to convince people in these areas that the party is best placed to enable them to ‘take back control’ of decisions that concern them.
|Marginal constituencies where increase in Tory vote greater than increase in Lab vote|
|Constituency (Region)||Result||Con 2017 vote||Lab 2017 vote||EU referendum
|Barrow & Furness (NW)||Lab Hold||47% (+6.5%)||47% (+5%)||56.8%|
|Bishop Auckland (NE)||Lab Hold||47% (+14.4%)||48% (+6.7%)||60.6%|
|Bolton West (NW)||Con Hold||48% (+7.3%)||46% (+7.1%)||55.5%|
|Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland (NE)||Con Gain||50% (+13%)||48% (+6%)||65%|
|Penistone & Stocksbridge (Yorks)||Lab Hold||43% (+15%)||46% (+4%)||61.4%|
|Copeland (NW)||Con Gain||49% (+13%)||45% (+3%)||59.9%|
|Morley & Outwood (Yorks)||Con Hold||51% (+12%)||47% (+9%)||59.8%|
|Wakefield (Yorks)||Lab Hold||45% (+11%)||50% (+9%)||62.8%|
|Blackpool South (NW)||Lab Hold||43% (+9%)||50% (+8%)||67.8%|
|Great Grimsby (Yorks)||Lab Hold||42% (+16%)||49% (+10%)||71.5%|
|Darlington (NE)||Lab Hold||43% (+8%)||51% (+8%)||58.1%|
|Rother Valley (Yorks)||Lab Hold||40% (+17%)||48% (+5%)||66.7%|
|Bolton North East (NW)||Lab Hold||42% (+9%)||51% (+8%)||57.8%|
|Workington (NW)||Lab Hold||42% (+12%)||51% (+9%)||60.3%|
|Data from Britain Elects; EU Ref estimates by Chris Hanretty|
Given the sudden rise in bullishness within Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, fed by the sudden shift in public opinion and the changing political narrative, should we consider these results a high water mark for the Tories in the North? Or are they sign of continuing momentum towards the Conservatives, perhaps fed by concerns around Brexit, which will in time undermine the Labour vote in the post-industrial North?
Given how recent events have left many political forecasters high and dry, it feels silly to attempt to answer these questions at this juncture. But while Labour appears to have successfully persuaded voters to buy into its strong anti-austerity position, and its positive and hopeful message that, we are told, may have resonated particularly well with young voters, it is less clear whether it has seen away the Tory advance into its Northern heartland.
What is certain is that, despite the headline results, Labour can no longer take the North vote for granted.
Jack Hunter is a research fellow at IPPR NorthSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.