Labour now has a northern discomfort to add to its southern discomfort

by Rob Marchant

For some time, people have spoken about Labour’s “southern discomfort”: its seeming difficulty in making any headway in the critical marginals of the South-East.

As the dust settled after the by-elections two weeks ago, it became clear that the net results were as bad, if not worse, for Labour as they were for the Tories, who had never really expected to hold onto Clacton anyway. But in Heywood and Middleton, Labour only narrowly held on to a seat in its northern, industrial heartlands.

Labour’s conclusion seems to have been a vague realisation that “we need to do something about immigration”. We might be thankful that, so far at least, it has not turned into a sop to the dumb, emotional argument of the populist right, that migration is generally is some kind of social and economic bad, when the reverse is true.

But it is also tempting to apply a nationally-uniform explanation for UKIP’s electoral success, where it does not fit. That is, it is important to look at the North and the South separately.

The caricature of UKIP is that it is gaining votes from Little Englanders, who traditionally have a mistrust of foreigners and Europe dating back, quite probably, to 1066. And there is a lot of truth in that: in the South.

In Clacton, where UKIP won its first by-election, the percentage of the population which is 92.8% “White British”. While one imagines that enough of its voters might have sufficient mistrust of immigrants from outside Europe, as well as inside it, to vote UKIP, the “outside Europe” part signals a mistrust largely born of ignorance. By definition: there is clearly not a great variety of skin colour to be seen on Clacton’s Victorian sea-front.

However, in the old mill, steel and coal towns of the M62 corridor, the story is different, many have large Asian populations. Voters in different communities form opinions of others not through ignorance, but through the knowledge of living side-by-side, in what have sometimes become parallel, rather than integrated, societies.

Labour has correctly clocked that UKIP has changed tack from “Europe” to “Europe and immigration”. But that message has resonated in the North for reasons that it has still not fully understood, to which we now turn.

Heywood and Middleton, it was little remarked over recent weeks, forms part of the Metropolitan Borough of Rochdale.

Now, if we are to get to fully understand the Heywood result, we need to think about how Rochdale has appeared in the national news over the last two years.

Last week, further evidence emerged regarding the abuse carried out by former MP Cyril Smith, and others, at Knowl View special school between forty and twenty years ago. Smith had abused in various locations “all in the Greater Manchester area”. As John Mann, tweeted last Thursday: “it is becoming clear that the child sex abuse cover up is much, much bigger than anyone could ever realise”.

Rochdale, it is clear, has had a poor history with regard to protecting children. As it seems many councils have had in that area, Rotherham being another recent example. However, there are two aspects to this effect, both of which affect Labour.

The first is that when “the authorities” let you down as a citizen, your natural reaction is to want to punish them at the ballot box. The Establishment in these Northern towns is almost exclusively Labour, so it is natural that they might bear the brunt of such feeling. However, there are mitigating factors: Smith was a Liberal and the abuse happened a long time ago. In the case of Rochdale, its current Labour MP Simon Danczuk has commendably left no stone unturned in surfacing abuse cases, no matter how awkward this might prove for today’s politicians. These things help.

But the second is a much more pernicious effect, and one open to manipulation by Labour’s opponents. It is undeniable that the most important contemporary manifestation of child abuse across those same Northern towns is from gangs of almost exclusively Pakistani-heritage men. In 2011, Rochdale was pretty much the first town to see this issue brought to public attention.

This year, Rotherham showed there was a pattern. Even before the child abuse investigation was published, Lewis Baston noted in Progress magazine that the only council by-election UKIP had so far won in the metropolitan boroughs since May 2013 was Rawmarsh ward in Rotherham, in June 2013. A coincidence? It seems unlikely.

Today, one suspects, we might not have won the Rotherham parliamentary by-election so convincingly, and there is certainly good anecdotal evidence suggesting that UKIP might be deliberately targeting seats where such gangs are an issue.

Most importantly, it is inconceivable that this subject will not still loom large in the minds of Rochdale’s parents and yet, apart from the tireless Danczuk and a couple of others, it is still practically a taboo subject for Labour, as we saw during the Heywood campaign. Jack Straw was practically crucified when he first raised it three years ago.

It was not taboo, of course, for UKIP, as their election leaflets show.

In fact, we left them an open goal. It could paint Labour not only as the party of incompetence, or even cover-up, with regard to child abuse. It could paint them as the out-of-touch local hegemonists; the blindly politically-correct governing party, so tight with the local Pakistani clans that it would never do anything to upset the applecart.

In short, Labour failed even to mention the one subject uppermost in many voters’ minds. As an anonymous Labour MP delicately put it to the Telegraph:

“Ukip has been making inroads because our party is unwilling to address difficult issues. In Heywood & Middleton we have been unwilling to talk about the child abuse scandal, which has given Nigel Farage’s party a clear opportunity. The party needs to give candidates freedom to discuss local issues, no matter how difficult. We have to let go of the reins.”

It is not difficult to extrapolate across the North – even to the Midlands, where the Trojan Horse scandal is creating a comparable opportunity for UKIP to paint Labour as deaf and blind – and see that we need to look to our laurels with regard to the core vote in many of these industrial towns. Add in reasonable concerns about strain on public services caused by immigration, and you have the recipe for a backlash against Labour.

This does not, of course, mean that Labour needs to get into debates about limiting numbers of migrants which our economy needs, or hinting that we “understand” UKIP’s lowest-common-denominator responses. That way lies madness.

But neither must it ignore realities. It is easy to see how speeches like Miliband’s to the PLP do not remotely address the concerns of Rochdale voters:

“Mr Miliband did not set out any new immigration policies, but spoke about the “need to take action against the undercutting of wages, the need to take action to make sure people integrate more, the need to make sure people learn English, the need to make sure there are not unfair recruitment practices.”

This just will not cut it when people perceive – quite wrongly in most cases, but in good faith – that the very lives of their children might be put at risk by a Labour council, or a Labour government, sitting on its hands out of political correctness.

No, Labour needs to lose its dangerous paralysis when discussing touchy subjects, especially those which affect different ethnic communities asymmetrically. It seems that identity politics, that corrosive force which drives us to categorise people according to the characteristics which divide, rather than unite us, always gets in the way.

Yes, there are a number of reasons why we might have alienated our core vote. But this is surely one of the most powerful in those northern towns. And, in conclusion, there is something which one finds it strange even to have to say about the Labour Party, the party of equality.

It needs, simply, to demonstrate convincingly to voters that it treats all people equally, regardless of their religion or the colour of their skin. No better and no worse. No special treatment for anyone. The same.

At the moment, it seems clear that a number of our prospective voters don’t feel that’s the case.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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30 Responses to “Labour now has a northern discomfort to add to its southern discomfort”

  1. bob says:

    Rob, you have shot yourself in the foot by stating and I quote:

    ‘We might be thankful that, so far at least, it has not turned into a sop to the dumb, emotional argument of the populist right, that migration is generally is some kind of social and economic bad, when the reverse is true.’

    So you denigrate hard working people who may vote Labour and have turned to UKIP for a solution, a solution that Labour has no idea how to produce.

    UKIP have tapped into a vein of thought by the general public who see all the current political class as weak feeble and disingenuous.

  2. Landless Peasant says:

    I’m in Bradford, UKIP don’t stand a cat-in-hell’s chance here! Neither do the Tory scum. Most will vote Labour, apart from old Socialists like me, who are now Green Party voters (entirely because of Labour’s support for Benefit Sanctions).

  3. dwll says:

    Excellent piece – if only because it is stating some obvious truths that few Labour politicians seem willing to openly talk about.

    However, you say that “It is undeniable that the most important contemporary manifestation of child abuse across those same Northern towns is from gangs of almost exclusively Pakistani-heritage men.” But reading through social media and the Guardian comment pages in the days following the publication of the Jay report, it was apparent that large parts of the liberal left were indeed still trying to deny the truth about this, as they have been doing for years.

    You also say that “people perceive – quite wrongly in most cases, but in good faith – that the very lives of their children might be put at risk by a Labour council, or a Labour government, sitting on its hands out of political correctness”.

    Why are they wrong to think this? The experience of the last 10 years is that so matter what people have tried to do to bring this appalling abuse to the attention of people in positions of power they have ignored and smeared as ignorant racists.

    Public sector authorities such as those in Rochdale and Rotherham operate in the context of an equality and diversity obsessed agenda, which created the climate that caused inconvenient truths such as these to be ignored. It is an agenda driven by the Labour Party and the London-based liberal left, yet they seem to think that hanging a few scapegoats out to dry (Shaun Wright, et al), absolves them of all responsibility.

    Guess what, it doesn’t. Labour is rightly blamed for this. It is difficult to think of a more fundamental betrayal of the people that the party was set up to represent. It has ruined lives. Labour thoroughly deserves to be punished through the ballot box.

  4. John Reid says:

    The shift from Ukip to labour of voters up North my cost Labour 5 sets to the Tories,assuming the Tories don’t do as well as 2010 but still get more votes than Labour plus a couple of Northern seats go straight to Ukip from labour, unless the ex Libdem vote goes to labour and props it up,

    But the real change will Labour lose 5 sets to SNP

  5. Landless Peasant says:

    @ bob

    “UKIP have tapped into a vein of thought by the general public who see all the current political class as weak feeble and disingenuous.”

    If that were true they’d all be voting for Class War, surely? UKIP have exploited the ignorant downtrodden masses by providing them with a conveniently xenophobic scapegoat to blame for their woes. That’s what Fascists always do.

  6. wg says:

    The author still doesn’t understand.

    The working class, the unions, and Labour were involved in a relationship of trust and mutual dependency. Now one partner was happy to drop it’s working class equal for a bit on the side (immigration)

    When injured partner raised the issue he/she was told that they were lazy and not bright enough; that they should stop complaining and learn to get on with the third partner in the relationship.

    Injured party persevered, was repeatedly ignored and derided, and eventually gave up and looked for someone else to share their life with.

    If your wife were treated like this would you expect her to stay with you?

  7. bob says:

    Landless Peasant:

    They thought that in H&M, secrecy of the ballot box paramount, they may be telling you porkies.

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    @Bob: It is not an social and economic bad, at least, not if managed properly. What “solution” are you looking for?

    @LandlessPeasant: I’d agree they may not stand much chance in Bradford. However, that is because Bradford West has opted for someone who is sympathetic to dictators Islamist extremists who are considerably more right-wing than UKIP. And Bradford East’s MP’s leanings are only slightly better.

  9. Tafia says:

    Might surprise a lot of people but what happened in Heywood is that huge numbers of Labour voters – including many asians, switched to UKIP. In turn, the LibDem vote went to Labour. In short, core working class votes left to be replaced by predominantly white middle class votes.

    (The asians feel very threatened by the influx of cheap east european labour under-cutting them)

  10. 07052015 says:

    Local political fiefdoms ,elected by tiny turnouts,without effective opposition -unreperesentative of the communities they serve are vulnerable as rob makes clear.

    I hope one consequence of the next election will be pr for local government.In time that will lead to proper scrutiny .

  11. steve says:


    Rob is part of the metropolitan elite, he’ll only complain about immigration when his wages are driven down by the arrival of tens of thousands of ‘communication consultants’ from eastern Europe.

    And until that happens he’ll try to persuade the Labour Party to distract from its political bankruptcy with an impression of jaunty political incorrectness achieved by attacking “Pakistani clans”.

  12. Madasafish says:

    The elephant in the room is this: both Labour and Conservatives have neutered and destroyed local Parliamentary democracy by controlling who is to be the local candidate to become MP.

    Hence the selection of special advisers or relatives of former Ministers to be candidates for safe seats- i.e MPs..It prostitutes democracy and emboldens third parties.

    Any party carrying out such a policy is basically acting as a recruiter for UKIP.

  13. james says:

    It’s interesting as where i live in the North the Lib Dems are getting stronger while Lab seems to be imploding with three resignations from the party in the past two years.

    I think it’s because the Lib Dems already knock on doors/leaflet and are proactive, imaginative and innovative with policies on roads, apprenticeships and regeneration.

    Perhaps it’s because they understand that they are servants of the people not just blind recipients of voting blocs make them work so hard.

    I get the impression that Labour used the `protest party` card for so long using a decrepit `see-saw` model of political change. That could only work for so long before a party that could never attain government (certainly in the near future) raised its head and did it a lot more `authentically`.

    I went out with my local LD cllr and there were a few Lab to UKIP and even LD switchers for the local council due to their hard work and action.

    Typical was one man who said he’d split his vote between the two.

  14. Michael Worcester says:

    Cooper at conference said Labour wants to remove the targets on foreign students and families (ie immigration by marriage) which only apply to non EU migrants

    On the daily politics show yesterday Caroline Flint was forced to admit the new policy on EU migration will hardly make a difference in the 200,000 coming from the EU

    Labour repeat they have ‘listened’ but clearly they have chosen to ignore what they are being told on every doorstep in the land

  15. 07052015 says:

    Another policy lite critique of labour.

    I reread the piece and cant see any mention of what Rob actually wants Labour to do.Anyway Ms Cooper who had the brief anyway tho she keeps a pretty low profile,is now heading up our response to ukip so we shall see.

    Are you sure you really want to do what labour switchers to ukip really want you to do ?

  16. Landless Peasant says:

    UKIP are a Fascist Party, funded by a self-confessed Fascist Greek Millionaire who believes that it should be illegal for women to wear trousers. UKIP hate all minorities, especially foreigners, women, and the poor. A vote for UKIP would be like voting for Mussolini or Hitler. No difference whatsoever. Vile racist cunts.

  17. Landless Peasant says:

    @ Tafia

    “(The asians feel very threatened by the influx of cheap east european labour under-cutting them)”

    Got any evidence of that? or just the ramblings of a closet racist? I don’t believe for one minute that Asians are leaving Labour to vote UKIP. Total bullshit.

  18. John Reid says:

    Landless peasant , remember when you were on University challenge,and you had the most stickiest bogey, liked poetry, and listened to Cliff richard, oh that was when you called yourself Rik, from the Young ones

  19. Tafia says:

    Landless Peasant – I was a publican in Heywood – The Crown Inn on Bury St ( ), a traditional working class ‘spit & sawdust boozer (but with the best beer garden for miles around). I have many friends there – both white and asian, nearly all blue collar working class. Traditional working class Labour stronghold estates like Darn Hill and Back O’ The Moss were awash with UKIP window posters. I can introduce you to card-carrying Labour Party members, shop stewards and even nurses who switched from Labour to UKIP.

    I even know a fair few asian taxi drivers for Eagle Cabs (the one that has been in the papers recently taken over and renamed as Car 2000) – and one asian muslim who, believe it or not, was a Royal Navy Petty Officer in the Falklands war.

    That good enough? Or should I expand.

  20. Tafia says:

    I don’t believe for one minute that Asians are leaving Labour to vote UKIP. Total bullshit.

    I forgot to add, older asians are far more socially conservative than the average Labour voter. They are heavily anti-drugs, very pro-religion, very very pro-family, big believers in standing on your own two feet and not looking to the state, big believers in local community – and more importantly, taking an active role in it, big believers in small state, big believers in working hard. Young asian men are a bit more radical, but as they get older and settle down they become more and more ‘conservative’ in their outlook.

  21. Landless Peasant says:

    Fuck off Reid you’re not funny.

  22. Ex labour says:

    Rob, I generally agree with your analysis on most things, but I need to correct you on something which is a myth of the left.

    A few years ago, a Meta Analysis was done on the reports and papers covering immigration. What the study found was that depending on how you classified the type of migrant produced significantly different results on the cost / benefit analysis. Therefore the data was open to manipulation.

    What it did say, which is no great surprise, was that highly skilled, qualified and experienced migrants significantly contributed to our economic benefit, whereas the unskilled / low skill migrant was in fact a drain on our resources. Bearing in mind that most migrants fall into the low skill or unskilled bracket, then there is an obvious conclusion to draw. However, the Labour Party and Miliband does not want to draw this conclusion, and continues to prevaricate over what their policy is on immigration and uses the myth as cover for doing so.

    The problem now is that we can no longer really get the people we want, rather we have to accept anyone coming from Europe. Until you and other Labour Party people face the truth there will be no solution.

  23. John Reid says:

    Landless peasant, you remind me of the NME in 1992 when they said anyone who disagreed with them was a fascist but it didn’t matter as after the revelation we’d all listen to billy Bragg anyway

    I recall in 2008 the greens had a poster, Vote green we’ll cut tax, spend more on public spending and everyone would be more happy.

    Someone wrote underneath…And everyone will get free cake and it’ll be Christmas day everyday!

    What makes you think I was trying to be funny!

  24. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ex-Labour: There is certainly a debate to be had about skilled vs unskilled migrants in Europe and the fact we don’t get to choose.

    However, this is a piece principally about immigration from outside Europe (Asia), where there are already deliberate filters in place. These filters are not perfect, but I am pretty sure Asian immigrant skill levels are not the issue for Rochdale voters here. At all.

  25. John Reid says:

    And Pre 1974 Labour was a socially coveravite, being left wing regarding unions having workers interste at heart doesn’t mean Liberal ,
    Take the 1960’s David Blunkett, or Shirley Williams and Jim Callghans suspsion of the Pemissive society,

    There are a lot of pensioners who are Catholics in my local Party, who rather than joining the SDP, just didn’t get involved in politics in the 80’s ,or gave up canvassing marginals and went to help Labour keep once safe seats that we nearly lost, Jo Richarsons a barking Bryan Goulds Dagenham, I can see comparisons with Hindu, Budhist, Chrisitan Asains who supported Labour in the Past, but would support Ukip now.

  26. Tafia says:

    Fuck off Reid you’re not funny.

    He is actually.

  27. David OWEN says:

    It must be galling for you to read about your fellow leftists making claims that concerns about immigration only occur in almost totally white areas like Clacton. It was even reproduced in Radio 4’s satire on the news last Friday at 18.30.
    As you point out, that is certainly not the case in the northern towns you refer to. Why do they (most of the left) still persist in living in such a political make believe world. How do you not bang your head against a brick wall?

  28. uglyfatbloke says:

    Where do I get to vote for Xmas every day and the free cake…..well….the free cake at least.
    John – do you really think Labour will lose 5 seats to the SNP? As things look today I’d think 15 would be a fairly conservative estimate, however it could be a great deal worse.

  29. John Reid says:

    Ugly fat blke originally I thought labour would lose 25 seats to SNP, but look at the boundaries , their best chance is taking Makocm abouve old seat as he’s retiring but, even then that need s a 7,900 swing, thre isn’t a target SNP seat to gain from labour with labour on less than a 9000 majority,

  30. Joh. Reid says:

    That should have been Malcolm Bruce

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