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Politicians love the ‘left-behind’ cliche. It masks their own failure

Rafael Behr

On 9 June 1994 there was a byelection in the east London constituency of Barking. Labour had held the seat since its creation, in 1945, and that wasn’t about to change. The Tories needed a sacrificial candidate – the kind of ambitious rookie who can take a beating as an electoral initiation rite. That punishment was taken by a 37-year-old Theresa May. She came third, with 1,976 votes.

That contest is hardly ancient history, but it still belongs to a different epoch. For one thing, “safe” Labour seats were safe back then. It was unimaginable that within a generation the party would be defending Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland in Cumbria as if they were hyper-marginal: “on a knife-edge”, as Jeremy Corbyn put it to a meeting of his MPs earlier this week.
The prospect would have seemed still less plausible with the Tories already in power for seven years. Laws of the electoral cycle stipulated that byelections are for oppositions to embarrass governments, not the other way around. Labour may well hold both of the seats it is defending on Thursday. So low have expectations sunk that Corbyn’s allies could present such a result as heroic defiance of the odds.

That analysis would comfort only the most committed disciples of the Labour leader. MPs who have campaigned in Stoke and Copeland say Corbyn is the most commonly cited obstacle to voting Labour. Among the older generation, whose ancestral loyalty forbids allegiance to another party, Corbyn is driving abstention.

The other common factor is that local issues are overriding national arguments. In Copeland, Labour’s hopes rest on the inability of the Tory candidate to guarantee that maternity services at West Cumberland hospital will be protected. Conservative prospects are invested in Corbyn’s historic anti-nuclear stance, which is radioactive in a seat where Sellafield is the largest employer.

In Stoke, Ukip might capitalise on decaying Labour support, but Paul Nuttall has blundered into the contest with a carpetbag full of ignorance and cynicism. He claimed to be living in the area but the address he gave was vacant. In a radio interview, he could not name the six towns that form the conurbation he seeks to represent in parliament. Nuttall’s forced retraction of an old claim to have lost “close personal friends” in the Hillsborough disaster compounds the impression that he is a slippery opportunist. He turns up in a seat that voted strongly for Brexit, but to which he has no prior connection, and hopes that by piping the standard Ukip tunes he can lead a march away from Labour.
Parachuting a favoured candidate into a winnable seat to advance his career is the sort of thing other parties used to do all the time and now do much less because it looks arrogant and complacent. For Labour the problem felt more acute when there were glaring class discrepancies between the London-based wunderkinder who sought safe seats as stepping stones to a ministerial job and the voters they ended up representing. Whatever the citizens of Stoke may think of their outgoing MP, none imagines that Tristram Hunt’s affection for the Potteries predated his selection as Labour’s candidate there in 2010.
Canvassing for the remain side in last year’s referendum revealed the scale of the problem. It was not the weight of Eurosceptic opinion that shocked. Nor was anti-immigration sentiment a surprise: that had been coming up on the doorstep for years. What struck canvassers in once-safe Labour seats was a feeling that the referendum was an opportunity to do something at the ballot box that, for once, could not be ignored. Elections had come and gone before. Promises had been made and broken. Every few years, the leaflets would drop through the letterbox. Maybe someone would knock on the door, but they wouldn’t bother on some estates. The signal was that voting was a duty the loyal Labour-supporting masses were expected to do by their party. Brexit felt different. It was the first time that voting seemed to offer big change – and the proof was the ashen faces of the people who urged no change. It was, as one Labour MP put it, a way of saying: “Now you have to listen.”

That sentiment has since been bundled up with a story of economic dissatisfaction. A conventional wisdom has coalesced around the image of leave voters congregating in areas that were “left behind”: taken for granted in the boom years and disproportionately afflicted by the bust. In this account the victims of globalisation sought shelter behind the Brexit barrier when it was offered.

It is a story that resonates as an analysis of social and political trends. It works less well for engagement with actual people. The condition of being “left behind” has become a convenient affliction projected on to diverse voters by politicians who need simple answers to complex questions.
May and Corbyn disagree on many things, but they share a glib account of millions tragically marooned on some remote economic shore, and they both cast themselves as the saviour sailing to the rescue. Neither seems interested in consulting on the destination. Ukip, meanwhile, looks at the conditions that led to Brexit as a resource to be mined – a seam of anger running across the country, regardless of regional contours, that might be converted into parliamentary seats.

Those attitudes aren’t much less patronising and lazy than the old habits of neglect that treated safe seats as stepping stones for career politicians. Party leaders have taken the referendum result, rewritten it in their own words, and are now declaiming it back at people.

When the results are in from Copeland and Stoke, they will be interpreted to fit the national stories May and Corbyn already want to tell about the anger of the left behind, how it manifests itself, and what to do about it. But no one was left behind. The same people have always been here. The problem is not enough people listening.