From Canterbury to Workington
Professor David Bates compares Labour’s traditional and new voting bases following the 2019 general election results.
In Canterbury the Labour Party put together a successful political moment, uniting the remain vote around the figure of the widely popular local MP Rosie Duffield.
The Labour project at the national level failed, in part because of how the public came to perceive Corbyn, and his Party’s policies (particularly on Brexit).
On the other hand, the Conservative Party managed to bring together traditional Tories, the wreckage of the ‘old working class’ and the generally apolitical into a moment united under the empty signifier ‘get Brexit done’.
By an empty signifier, I refer to an empty phrase, which those of quite differing ideological orientation can fill with meaning. So, for the entrepreneurially minded Tories, this echoes the management mantra ‘get the job done’. For others, it seems more like a desperate cry ‘just get Brexit done, for goodness sake; please make this end’.
Once we look at the social basis of these political moments, the picture becomes a little clearer.
The socio-demographic basis of Canterbury is shifting. It has a large student population with three universities and an increasingly privileged middle class who have come to the Labour Party later in the day, but who have little connection with its more traditional working- class base (what we might term the ‘Whitstable effect’). In short, Canterbury is increasingly socially liberal and pro-EU in a way which sets it apart from those Labour constituencies which the Conservatives have managed to capture. For this reason, the Conservatives may struggle to ‘recapture’ it.
But the social and demographic base of areas such as Workington is quite different. The BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg repeated Johnson’s words, stating that traditional Labour supporters had ‘lent’ their vote to the Conservatives. But the collective social basis which tied such workers to the Labour Party has eroded. The solidarity generated in the context of the exercise of skilled labour, has been replaced by mass unemployment, and debt fuelled individualism. The constituency of areas such as Workington could not represent themselves, so they must be represented. It is not really surprising that it is to the right that their attachment has been made.
The question is whether this new attachment will last?
David Bates is Professor of Contemporary Political Thought and Director of Politics and International Relations.