Parts of Labour’s heartlands had been threatening to turn blue for some time. But on Thursday night that threat became a reality. Seat after seat that Labour had held throughout the postwar period fell to the Conservatives. At the start of the campaign “Workington man” — the target voter in northern towns — seemed like a caricature, and there seemed little real chance that the seat would change hands. But in the end the Conservatives won it comfortably.
There is no doubt that this was a terrible night for Labour. And as the losing side casts around for factors to explain it, Brexit and the party’s leadership are top of the list. It is also the case that in some of these seats much of the damage to Labour majorities had been done already, in the 2017 general election. But this is not the whole story. To focus only on the post-referendum period is to miss changes that had been occurring in Labour’s heartlands since the years of Tony Blair’s premiership.
Analysis on election night highlighted that a factor related to falls in the Labour vote share was how “working-class” the constituency was (measured as the proportion of the electorate in routine or semi-routine occupations). This appears to predict more strongly Labour’s fortunes in a constituency in 2019 than age, education levels, ethnicity or the Leave share of the vote.
A weakening of the link between social class and voting has already been well documented. Some suggest that age is the new class. But what remained of the working-class link to voting Labour appears to have broken still further apart in this election.
Some hints that this was happening could be found in the pre-election polling, where the skilled working class were predicted to split more heavily for the Conservatives than ever before. It was also evident in other indicators of the disconnect between Labour and its traditional voter base. Asked which party looks after the interests of working people those in this skilled working-class group broke 35 per cent to 32 per cent in favour of the Conservatives.
This is part of a wider disengagement from Labour of a group of voters who are broadly speaking supportive of the party’s economic position, comfortable with nationalisation and strong trade unions, but who increasingly find themselves out of step on other issues such as criminal justice and immigration. These voters backed Mr Blair in 1997 but by 2010 they were already moving towards the Conservatives. Critically, this group feels that the political parties do not represent them and that they have little voice in politics. More likely to be Leave voters in the EU referendum, this is a group who felt shut out: a sense made more acute at the election when more than three years later their decision had not been implemented.
There is little evidence that this group of voters went enthusiastically to the Conservative party, and small reductions in turnout across these seats suggest that some simply stayed home. But the slogan “Get Brexit done” seemed to resonate and give these voters hope that their voices were being heard. Many were willing at least to lend Boris Johnson’s incarnation of the Conservative party their vote.
A long time in the making perhaps, but there is no guarantee that these seismic changes will prove to be a long-lasting realignment of British politics. In the absence of an emotional attachment to a party, voters are much more likely to switch allegiance again at a later election. The effect of five years of a Johnson government on these communities — and the potential impact of whatever version of Brexit the prime minister is able to implement — is yet to be seen. But it may be premature to view the new “blue curtain” as a permanent feature.
The writer is a political sociologist at Bristol university