How Labour lost working class support in UK's 'left behind' regions.


Labour is battling to retain a number of seats that have long been the party's strongholds in the upcoming UK general election. Many of these areas are in the North of England and Midlands. They are post-industrial parts of the country where there was a substantial vote to leave the European Union in 2016. Boris Johnson's Conservative Party is leaning heavily on this, with its promise to "get Brexit done".

To understand the appeal of Brexit in these areas and the disillusionment with Labour, we need to understand the huge economic challenges they face. Much of this is the result of austerity. More than simply public spending cuts, it's important to recognise austerity as an economic model, which was first introduced by Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s and has been embedded into the UK's economic and social landscape since.

As well as cuts, austerity is a package of measures that includes privatisation, a regressive tax policy, reduction in wages and labour rights to make the workforce more "flexible". Meanwhile, the attack on welfare has been a prominent feature of austerity. By 2020 there will be APS27 billion less spending on social security than a decade earlier. As the UN's poverty expert Phillip Alston put it in his 2019 report on Britain:

Many aspects of the design and rollout of [Universal Credit] have suggested that the [government] is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting.

Loss of support

The New Labour governments of the late 1990s and early 2000s were guilty of continuing the economic model introduced by Thatcher, and as a consequence abandoning its core electorate. This was a major reason for the Brexit vote and a major loss of support among working class communities for Labour.

For example, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study I was involved with looked at policies for deprived regions carried out under the 2005-07 Labour government. It found that funding cuts, privatisation and contracting out of employment services were the dominant policy models. Regeneration initiatives lacked the necessary resources to tackle the economic and employment needs of people living in deprived areas.

These are regions that once provided well-paid, skilled jobs for communities, with opportunities for career progression. Now the main employers are...

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