by Nick Wright
Something is stirring in the South. The South of England, regarded for some time by pundits and Labour officials as Tory territory with an occasional Lib Dem outcrop, is experiencing a Labour revival. The lost years of triangulating Tory policies and courting swing voters saw Labour decline to fringe status. But Corbyn’s new approach and a vastly invigorated Labour movement have changed perceptions. This month Labour’s Tony Winckless (above second from right) displaced UKIP and took the Milton Regis seat on Swale Council with 53 per cent of the vote.
Turnout in council by-elections is usually low but the full results show an encouraging trend. The Labour percentage rise in this key working class North Kent community was 25.1; the Tories, with less than a quarter of the votes, suffered a 9.8 per cent decline; UKIP plummeted 14.7 per cent – over half their previous total while the Lib Dems, who won a recent Swale by-election in neighbouring Faversham, limped in at 8.1 per cent showing no gain.
This followed the gain by Labour in the neighbouring East Kent coastal town of Margate when Ian Venables won with a 57% share of the vote, with the Conservatives in second place and UKIP third The by-election resulted from a departure of the former UKIP councillor who defected to the Conservatives. The Lib Dems polled 33 votes and the Green Party 23.
These victories in key working class areas – where the Blair and Brown years saw the collapse of the Labour vote and the decay into defeatism of the party itself – represent a triumph for the strategic approach the Corbyn leadership. These are former mining and shipbuilding areas with strong military and naval traditions and where everyday encounters with the problems thrown up by Britain’s membership of the European Union are particularly marked. The ferry crossings with the Continent, the massive traffic flows, the human tragedies that arrive on the county’s doorstep; not least the presence of many migrant workers – actually forced labourers – living and working in appalling conditions have lent the debates around Brexit and migration a particularly toxic character.
Meanwhile in the true blue South Coast town of Worthing Labour’s candidate Beccy Cooper – who in the general election lifted Labour’s vote by more than ten thousand – has won a seat on Worthing Borough Council, the first for Labour in more than four decades. She won 47.4 per cent of the vote with the Tory lagging behind with 38.8 per cent and the Lib Dem, limping in last.
Even though they are strikingly new for the South these are not freak regional results but reflect national trends. The fourth YouGov/Times survey of the new Parliament sees Labour ahead on 44% (from 43% two weeks ago) while the Conservatives remain on 41%.
Elsewhere, Liberal Democrat voting intention stands at 7% (from 6% in mid-July) while 9% of people would vote for other parties.
When Labour won the perennially Tory seat in the university city of Canterbury, which sits between Margate and Milton Regis, the right wing Labour narrative suggested that under Corbyn Labour’s appeal is to youthful metropolitan, middle-class liberal strata (with the explicit suggestion that in order to appeal to ‘traditional’ working class voters a right wing tack towards empire nostalgia and patriotic sentiment is necessary.
It is true that students and academics at the two Canterbury universities voted in large numbers for Labour’s new candidate Rosie Duffield but equally the big working class housing estates also turned out. This was no sudden change but built on an 8.4 per cent increase won by Labour’s Hugh Lanning two years earlier in the previous general election. In 2017 the Green vote slumped, the Lib Dems lost 3.6 per cent (and this on top of a 20.9 per cent decline in 2015). UKIP vanished but the Tories only benefitted marginally. Labour simply took votes off every other party.
The truth is that as much as among working class and Labour voters in this traditionally Tory county, where working class communities have been under assault for decades as among big sections of the middle class, there is a new mood for change.
There are distinctive features about Kent politics, a neglectful majority on the county council and Tory and Lib Dem indolence on borough councils, grammar schools and the archaic survival of the 11 plus in schools selection, a high percentage of private schooling, wealthy villages twinned with working class towns to submerge independent working class representation. But the trade union movement, especially the trades councils have revived campaigning as has Unite Community; independent health campaigns are vibrant from Canterbury to the Medway Towns while in Maidstone Labour has been making steady gains.
If Labour’s prospects of forming a government rest on winning sections of the progressive minded middle class to an alliance with workers these results are doubly encouraging.