The future of the left since 1884

A true testing ground

To demonstrate that it is relevant and credible, Labour must become the party of aspiration – and one bellwether region shows how that can be done. Rory Palmer explains


Long read

Back in 2001, as a young activist growing up in the East Midlands, I was told by a senior party official in no uncertain terms: “You cannot win the country without winning the East Midlands.”

This is not just an obvious statement of electoral arithmetic but also a more profound observation about the popularity, credibility and cultural appeal of Labour’s offer. Every region and part of the country can tell its own story in relation to Labour’s recent electoral performances and each is equally important. But there is a particular significance about the East Midlands, a region that shares boundaries with the north and the south, that should be explored.

In recent years, different analytical frames have been presented to explain aspects of Labour’s electoral story: ‘southern discomfort’, ‘the Red Wall’, and so on. These narratives are all interesting but each carries its limitations in really understanding what has happened to Labour. Few constituencies fit neatly into one narrative frame. But in exploring Labour’s past performance and more importantly how it can renew, the East Midlands – as a collection of constituencies with a diverse range of socioeconomic characteristics and electoral patterns – carries instructive lessons for Labour’s route to recovery and renewal.

The region is neither north or south. It stretches from the border of the South Yorkshire coalfields to the very tip of the home counties. In the west, the region touches Greater Manchester, spanning across the country to the east coast. In places, this middle of England region has the real feel of ‘Middle England’.

Historically, the region has been viewed as a bellwether for the two main parties. Its mix of large, diverse university cities, industrial heartlands, rolling countryside and market towns means winning a majority of the region’s seats is no easy feat and requires building a broad coalition of support through a platform that has genuine appeal right across the electorate.

Winning in the East Midlands is thus symbolic, and is also crucial to showing that we have a nationwide offer with genuine cut-through and appeal. Yet there are seats Labour has not won since 2005 and which have been fought as marginals at every election since – like Broxtowe, Erewash and Loughborough along the M1 corridor – that will have to be gained to win a majority.

Twenty years ago, at the 2001 general election, the Labour government secured re-election. It did so winning 28 of the 44 constituencies in the East Midlands – a regional total that actually included losing two seats, including Chesterfield at  Tony Benn’s retirement from parliament. In this election, Labour secured a vote share in the East Midlands of 45.1  per  cent. The last time Labour won a general election in 2005, 26 East Midlands constituencies were won.

Almost two decades is of course a long time – not least in political terms. After Labour’s disastrous 2019 general election, the party now holds just eight of them – and just 31.7 per cent of the vote share. With the exception of Chesterfield, all of these seats are based in the region’s large cities of Derby, Leicester and Nottingham.

Bassetlaw was lost with a swing against Labour of 18.4  per  cent (the largest constituency swing from Labour to the Tories). Mansfield, which was lost in 2017, recorded the second largest Tory vote increase in 2019. Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover – a seat which had Labour’s largest majority in the region at the 2001 election – was lost with a swing of 11.5 percentage points. The largest Labour majority in the region is now in inner-city Leicester in Leicester South, illustrating how Labour’s base has flipped from the coalfields to the cities.

As Keir Starmer has often said since the 2019 result, Labour has a mountain to climb. Scaling that mountain demands significant improvement in Labour’s electoral performance in all parts of the country. The scale and complexity of the challenge in the East Midlands typifies and encapsulates the now tricky terrain facing Labour in rebuilding a broad coalition of support and in renewing its offer to secure widespread appeal across the country.

If Labour builds a future vision that is relevant and credible to voters across the diverse constituencies in the East Midlands, then we will be heading in the right direction again.

The first step is to remind people – and for those too young to know, to tell them – that Labour can and has been an effective, radical party of government. We must speak up and defend our record in government and the difference we made – not for history’s sake but to help set the foundations of our future offer and its narrative.

The way in which the Conservatives have been allowed to set the narrative around the future of communities in the East Midlands – and beyond – with their notion of ‘levelling up’ is something Labour must address urgently. One of the explanations why this narrative has taken hold in recent years is the failure to defend the difference the last Labour government made in communities across the East Midlands and elsewhere.

Elections must be about the future and we will be judged on our forward offer. But the failure to mount an unrelenting defence of the policy interventions that were laying the foundations of recovery and renewal in former coalfield and industrial communities in the Midlands and the north from 1997 onwards has helped give the Tories a free pass in defining levelling up. It is also allowing them the luxury of avoiding any culpability for what has happened to these areas – both in relation to the austerity of 2010 onwards and the dismantling of mainstay industry in the 1990s.

The investment in public services and infrastructure together with a social policy agenda anchored around life-changing interventions like Sure Start, the New Deal and tax credits was genuinely transformative in communities that had been decimated by the industrial decline under the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s. Much of that transformative intervention – which was moving the dial on deep-rooted socioeconomic and health inequalities – has become forgotten history in recent years.

The economic decline and its social consequences in former coalfield areas were always going to take a generation to repair. That is not to be unambitious: it is pragmatic given the impact of major structural economic damage with widespread unemployment that passed from one generation to the next. As Fabians, we understand that economic and social progress is secured gradually. That progress was happening as a result of the last Labour government’s efforts and it should have been better defended and explained in recent years. People need to know that Labour – when it gets things right – can deliver the big change the country needs: that Labour was and can be a party of government.

Looking to the more recent past, some attempt to explain the 2017 and 2019 results entirely through the prism of Brexit. This does not chime with my experience on the doorsteps across the East Midlands. Undoubtedly, Brexit was a factor – introducing a complex stream of political turbulence and chaos into an already volatile and shifting electoral landscape.

But Brexit has happened, and whilst its implications continue to be felt, we need to understand where voters see Britain’s place in the world today, after leaving the EU. Over recent years I have had hundreds of conversations with people who voted to leave. It would be a fundamental mistake to interpret their vote as a mandate for a shrinking of Britain’s place and standing in the world. Doorstep conversations over two decades in constituencies from the university-town of Loughborough to coalfield Bassetlaw speak to a strong sense of healthy patriotism drawing on Britain’s role as a responsible and leading global partner.

In many parts of the region there is a strong and proud tradition of military service, often across generations of families. People expect Labour to understand and recognise this as part of a positive expression of our country’s values and role in the world. On a school study visit to Brussels I organised during my time as an MEP, a group of young people from the East Midlands expressed strong views on both sides of the Brexit debate, but on visits to the first world war battlefields around Ypres and to NATO HQ in Brussels there was universal agreement that our country is at its best when it looks outward to the world, demonstrating a leadership built on a steadfast commitment to human rights and a global rules-based system.

The next issue Labour must address is: “You can’t spend what you haven’t got.” Anyone who has been anywhere near a doorstep in recent years will have heard statements like this. I have heard it on doorsteps right across the East Midlands and it goes to the heart of a simple yet absolutely vital fact: essential to Labour’s route back to power is economic credibility.

In recent elections, East Midlands voters did not trust Labour on public finances – a trend that played out in other regions and across the country. On the doorsteps in all parts of the region voters found policy commitments they liked in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, but fundamentally did not see Labour’s economic plans as credible. This was coupled with strong and deeply held views about Labour’s leader at those elections, making it impossible to win a fair hearing from voters. Large numbers of the electorate across the region’s diversity of constituencies simply did not see Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn as a credible choice.

Many voters felt that Labour had drifted away from them, and not the other way round.

The first fundamental challenge for Keir Starmer and Labour’s frontbench is therefore to establish leadership credibility in the eyes of the electorate across the region. Securing trust on economic policy is key in doing that; the first building block from which to set out a transformative Labour programme which allows East Midlands communities to fulfil their potential again after a decade of austerity and the impact of the pandemic.

Integral to this is the urgent need to position Labour once again as the party of aspiration. Communities the length and breadth of the East Midlands, as elsewhere, are ambitious and aspirational. There is a deeply held sense, whether in former coalfields towns or diverse inner-city areas, that hard work and enterprise should be rewarded.

The innovation and exciting tech start-ups are not just found on the enterprise parks around the region’s universities, important as they are; they are just as likely to be found in the industrial units now located on the old coal pit sites. Labour has to be unequivocally on the side of this enterprise culture and aspiration – setting out ambitious policies to nurture and unlock it.

A renewed Labour approach to aspiration can be the bedrock of Labour’s forward offer for communities facing the harshest challenges post-pandemic and because of a decade of austerity. Crucially, if crafted effectively, it can outflank the Tories’ levelling up agenda. But if this approach is to succeed, policies that seek to embed a new aspiration need to be built on security and empowerment.

The security of a strong foundation of public services in all communities is crucial, across the NHS, social care, education and skills. The investment in core public services across East Midlands communities raised aspirations and helped revive civic pride that had been trampled during the years of industrial decline. Policing and community safety used to be one of Labour’s strongest pillars on the doorsteps. That was not the case in recent elections and it is right that efforts are well underway to rebuild Labour’s appeal in these important policy areas.

Building a renewed sense of aspiration also demands a  bold approach to empowering communities to shape their own futures, truly unlocking the potential of our local leaders to take their areas forward. In recent years, it feels the distance between communities in the East Midlands and decision-making in Westminster has got wider. That is a sentiment felt in many other parts of the country. The East Midlands – with the exception of the South East outside London – is the only region without a metro mayor, but empowering communities demands more than a debate on governance structures. Labour  must lead the shaping of a vision for devolution that is about empowerment, aspiration and improving life chances.

If Labour is to recover it must build a forward offer that blends these core pillars of leadership and economic policy credibility; aspiration, empowerment and security in our communities; and a strong sense of Britain’s place in  the  world post-Brexit. Doing this in the East Midlands – the very heart of the country bridging north and south  – will read across into progress in other regions as well.

It is reassuring that in the first year of Keir Starmer’s leadership, these core pillars have been very much evident in Labour’s narrative. There is a long way to go to repair the damage of Labour’s electoral disaster of 2019. The challenge to remould a  coalition of support across the electorate in constituencies that Labour has not won since 2005 and where incumbent Conservative majorities have grown is huge and complex.

It will take time to repair the damage of Labour’s disastrous result in 2019 and rebuild in places where voters feel Labour drifted too far away from them. To be competitive again at a general election Labour must return to winning ways in the north and in the south, and everywhere in between. That everywhere in between is the East Midlands. In electoral terms a bellwether region, in wider terms now a testbed for Labour’s recovery in policy and cultural terms.

It is clear the party has the determination and resolve to rebuild and renew its offer to win again in all parts of the country. What that senior party official told me all those years ago – that Labour can’t win the country without winning the East Midlands – remains a fundamental political truth.

What happens in the East Midlands in these coming years will be crucial to Labour’s fortunes across the country.

Image credit: ChrisUK/Flickr

Rory Palmer

Rory Palmer was Labour MEP for the East Midlands from 2017 to 2020 and deputy city mayor of Leicester from 2011 to 2017.


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