Yesterday’s blog Labour is a Progressive Party or we are Nothing cries out for a follow-up. As is shown only too graphically in the map at the beginning of this post, the UK Independence Party took votes from what used to be considered Labour’s “core” vote in the largely white old mining and industrial areas outside the big cities. The white working class outside the major conurbations is no longer blindly loyal to Labour, and the European and local election results showed a very marked difference in voting for UKIP and voting for Labour in the cities as opposed to the less urban areas. While we have come to expect UKIP to do well in the Tory shires, their rise in Labour’s old heartlands is relatively recent.
Rather than concentrating on what are still seen as Labour’s “core” areas where mining and the older industries used to hold sway, the Labour Party would do well to examine why we did so well in the big cities – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds – as well as other urban areas. As an MEP from London where Labour topped the poll with four MEPs while the Conservatives went down to two and UKIP remained at one, I do feel able my views on this are valid.
The statistics are revealing. Across London Labour won 36.37 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives 22.52 per cent while UKIP managed only 16.87. In both Manchester and Liverpool Labour again came first with 51 per cent of the vote in both cities, although UKIP were second in both places. Labour also won in Blackburn. Although not as high a percentage of the vote, Labour was first in the Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford and Kirklees.
While I completely accept that both the European and local council elections are often used as a protest vote and that people act differently when choosing a government, it is still valuable to look hard at why Labour succeeded in the cities in 2014 but lost out in our “core” towns and more rural areas. Indeed, the Labour Party should not be too complacent about regaining these voters at next year’s general election. While some will undoubtedly want a Labour government, there will also be those who may continue to vote UKIP. Lord Ashcroft, who has made a bit of a name for himself as a pollster, reckons that about half of those who voted for UKIP will unfortunately stay with them.
Tragically for those of us who want to look forward not backward and believe that it is of the utmost importance that all of us in this country live together in peace and harmony whatever our ethnicity or cultural background, immigration is one major dividing line between the cities and most of the rest of the country. Even more tragically, it’s not just immigration; there is also a strong dose of racism working to increase UKIP’s support. Put simply, if you live in a city surrounded by people from all over the world speaking a number of different languages you accept everyone who is reasonable and decent. People in all of this country’s large cities are used to diversity and do not fear it.
I suspect this is not the case in mainly or all-white areas, a situation made worse by lack of government funding for schools, doctors, hospital and housing. While the Tory-led coalition has been responsible for the rise in the UKIP vote by starving our communities of much of what they so badly need, voters would not have turned to UKIP without the innate fear of the outsider often felt by those who live in racially homogeneous areas. While I believe politicians should be aware that this fear exists, I think it is neither right nor helpful to act on it by condemning immigrants or immigration. People are people after all and Labour is the party for everyone, the many not the few.
In addition to ethnic and cultural diversity, people living in Britain’s big cities are also younger and better educated than those in the old mining and industrial areas. UKIP have, in fact, admitted that London’s population was too well educated to back their party. As reported in the Evening Standard,UKIP’s communities spokesperson, Suzanne Evans conceded that UKIP “haven’t really got our message across” in London, where …. support for Nigel Farage’s party is significantly lower than in other parts of the country”.
Ms Evans told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is work to do, I think we haven’t really got our message across in London. As you say, we do have a more media-savvy, well-educated population in London, and they are more likely I think to have read some of the negative press that’s been about us and I think they’ve been more likely to believe it.”
Whether Suzanne Evans meant to put forward her views in quite this way is unclear. She did, however, hit the nail on the head.
Britain’s big cities make up a large proportion of the electorate. The population of England and Wales in 56.6 million, London is 7.8 million, Greater Manchester and Liverpool together 5 million while the cities of Birmingham and Leeds combined come to 1.85 million, a total of 14.65 million or nearly a quarter of the population of England and Wales. This is, of course, a very rough calculation and does not take account of all Britain’s large urban areas.
There is clearly a lot of electoral sense in Labour concentrating its efforts on Britain’s cities. While much of what Labour used to see as its heartlands is showing unmistakable signs of moving away from the party, the cities, which have also generally shown strong levels of support for Labour, are coming towards us. Labour is now the party of urban Britain. In order to win in 2015 we really must embrace and nurture these supporters, wherever they are from and whatever their ethnicity.