“My parents voted Labour, my grandparents voted Labour, I’ve voted Labour in the past too, but this time I’m not sure, I’m thinking of going Conservative.”
This was typical of the kind of response I was getting in parts of the country like Oldham East and Saddleworth that troubled me at the start of the general election campaign.
Things were no different in my home, Dagenham, where I’ve been a campaigner since 2005 (when the BNP first won a by-election) and a councillor since 2010. Having been to primary and secondary schools in the area, having been involved in some epic political battles there, (including finally ousting the BNP councillors in 2010), and even having some old school friends join me on polling day to get out the vote, it’s somewhere I feel comfortable; comfortable that I understand local people, their concerns, their history, anxieties, anger, and hopes. Nevertheless, it was a series of doorstep conversations that took place in Whalebone Ward – where like nearly all the other wards in the borough of Barking & Dagenham, Ukip had finished in second place in the 2014 council elections, with the Conservatives a distant third – that defined for me the key battle of the 2017 general election. Who in the end, Labour or Conservative, would be able to win enough former Ukip voters, to hold, or to win, Labour’s heartland seats?
During the campaign, Labour were able to turn things round. Our bread and butter manifesto appeared real to people in working class communities. Tangible and realistic; anti-establishment yet deliverable. It resonated with the collective sense in so many of the communities where the Conservatives have consistently sold off the country’s finest assets, and done little to advantage left behind communities – instead happy for them to sink in the global ‘free market’.
On the doorstep in constituencies like Oldham East and Saddleworth, no one mentioned the Conservative attack lines.
But people did mention the dementia tax, and the need for free school meals – which were under threat. And I remember a young father frustrated that his wife couldn’t go back to work despite wanting to, because childcare costs were so high. Labour’s pledge to extend free childcare won him over right there and then. After the conversation I had with him, he felt that Labour ‘sounded like Labour’ once again.
In my view people, particularly men of a certain age, are much more susceptible to the likes of Ukip and their dangerously simple solutions to complex problems when they and their community have been stripped of pride, self-worth and dignity for too long by the economic choices made in Westminster. Restoring their emotional connection with our party, through Labour championing better wages, real investment and the creation of jobs identifiable with a community’s proud past but set in a modern context started to chime in a powerful way with voters who had perhaps given up on Labour.
Back home in Dagenham & Rainham, the progressive and unabashedly patriotic messages about restoring dignity and pride ensured that we bit a big enough chunk out of Ukip to match the collapse of many of their voters into an openly hard Brexit Conservative candidates’ hands. In places like Dagenham we campaigned for more visible policing and honouring the historic shared sacrifices of working class kids in the army, yet at the same time celebrating the diversity of our communities.
Labour should never take its heartlands for granted again because those voters have shown they will go elsewhere. Labour in England came dangerously close to losing them permanently. Now these voters are returning, and Labour must ensure that they are welcomed, that we speak in their language and to their concerns and that our plans for ordinary people to take back control of their lives do not ring hollow. Whether it’s through regional investment banks and the skills drive to accompany that through free lifelong learning; much-needed strategic industrial investment focused on northern England; running some parts of the country’s infrastructure publicly again so people feel things are run in their interests first; a proper long-term deal on pensions; improved pay and conditions alongside a serious set of new rights at work; and ensuring that local authorities will be able to borrow more to build high quality council houses that will be fit for a new generation, alongside making home ownership a reality for those who are now totally priced out.
If people believe that Labour will restore pride and dignity to held back communities and that they won’t be at the back of the queue, whether that’s in inner-city London or Hartlepool, then we can as a party build the coalition that needs reassembling to transform and rebuild this country with a Labour government.