December 20, 2019

The “period of reflection” called for by defeated Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has commenced. Perhaps “reflection” is the wrong word. More like “vitriol, excommunication and a never-ending series of I told you so’s”. But a debate is at least taking place, which is something.

Much of the focus so far has been on the collapse of Labour’s Red Wall in the North and Midlands. The people’s party has been losing ground to the Tories among the working class for decades but it has ramped up under Corbyn who, ironically, was touted back in 2015 as the candidate who, by swerving to the Left, could win back the party’s disenfranchised “core” vote.

Four years later and nothing remotely like this has transpired. In seats where Labour once commanded majorities exceeding 20,000, the Tories are triumphant. Talk of blue-collar conservatism is in the air. Brexit is one of the causes but there is a deeper malaise in the Labour camp. The party is increasingly dominant among students and liberal voters in the big cities but the working classes are turning their backs on them.

Things are more complicated than that, of course. Labour is still doing well in northern cities such as Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield; yet it is flailing in towns. This is as true in parts of the South as it is in the North and Midlands.

Back in 2016 I spent some time in Rugeley in the West Midlands. And I returned there last year to make an audio-documentary for UnHerd. The former mining town is situated in the constituency of Cannock Chase, which, in the years from 1997 to 2010, saw a Labour majority of 14,000 gradually wittered down to nothing; today the constituency boasts a Conservative majority of 20,000.

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Rugeley’s town centre has a ghostly air. Blackened brick dwellings, dwellings which once housed the town’s miners and their families have — since the shuttering of the pits — been partitioned and turned into buy-to-let properties. It was in one of these houses that I lived during my stay here, lodging with two young Romanians and an older English man in a house that reeked of cheap paint. All the inhabitants of the house worked in the Amazon warehouse — or “fulfilment centre” as it was called by management — situated about a mile down the road.

Amazon set up shop in Rugeley in 2011, 20 years after the Lea Hall Colliery shut its gates. The colliery, which opened in 1960, was the first modern coal mine opened by the National Coal Board, and the Cannock Chase coalfields at one point supported 48 mines. The last of these, in Littleton, closed in 1993.

The Amazon warehouse itself — the pale-blue colour of a swimming pool — looks incongruous amid a landscape of sodden green fields. At a café on the high street a local woman had told me that Amazon’s arrival had been a “massive thing for the community”, recalling that “There was gonna be all these jobs, but no one ended up getting one, did they? There’s a hell of a lot of anger round here about it now”.

She was referring to the army of Eastern Europeans who were brought in each day on coaches to work the shifts that locals were unwilling to do. “They don’t employ local people, do they?” the woman said accusingly, jabbing a finger at me as I left the café.

“Can’t or won’t?” I asked.

“Well, they never seem to take any locals on, that’s all I’m saying.”

When I revisited the town last year, that café had shut.

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Amazon — or more accurately, the agencies Amazon tasked with employing people — did in fact take on locals. I met some while working at the company. But most didn’t stick around. The work was too gruelling and the regime too authoritarian; we used to walk around 10 miles a day and were forbidden from talking with co-workers during shift time.

Taking a day off sick — even with a note from the doctor’s — landed you with a disciplinary “point”. Spend too long on a toilet break and you received another point. Six of these and you lost your job. Amazon was the largest employer in Rugeley and like other big employers in the towns employed its staff on zero-hours contracts.

On the surface Rugeley was a success story, a model pupil of the “regeneration” agenda promoted by various governments. Identikit out-of-town retail parks sprang up all over the place during the nineties and noughties. Like the rise of companies such as Amazon, this may have helped to strangle our high streets, but the payoff was job creation.

Amazon’s arrival in areas such as Rugeley, Swansea, Doncaster and South Yorkshire — all former coal mining areas — brought the tantalising prospect of restored pride. “Online bookseller Amazon has been swamped with jobhunters for its new depot in Staffordshire — leading to delays in the recruiting process,” announced the local paper, the Express & Star, shortly before the fulfilment centre — which was set to employ over 2,000 people — opened its doors.

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It’s a pity no one bothered to ask whether the jobs being created were any good or not. By the time I arrived in Rugeley it was only Romanians and Bulgarians willing to do the gruelling entry-level jobs at the warehouse. This ought to have been a warning sign, yet the reluctance of indigenous workers to do work like this at the rates being offered was put down to the cosseted nature of the British working class.

When a group of Right-wing Tory MPs claimed that British workers were among the “worst idlers in the world”, I suspect many liberals quietly nodded along. That was certainly the response I got when I broached the subject with liberal friends and family members.

Amazon is a convenient whipping boy in Rugeley; but there is a broader challenge around the sorts of jobs being created in Britain’s towns, towns that were once thriving centres of industry. A 2015 report by the Centre for Cities described a reality in which jobs in declining industries were being replaced by “lower-skilled, more routinised jobs, swapping cotton mills for call centres and dock yards for distribution sheds”.

Moreover, there were a particular set of institutional affiliations that were lost when industry was wound down. When the old jobs went people were thrown out of work, but a culture was destroyed with them, too. Jobs that offered security have been replaced by part-time non-union work. Pubs and social clubs have closed while the pews in local churches continue to empty out. The Labour Party is less and less rooted in towns like Rugeley.

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Back in 1997 the late Tony Judt, too nuanced a thinker to hold much sway with the faction that controls the contemporary Labour Party, wrote the following about towns in western Europe:

“In post-industrial France or Britain and elsewhere, the economy has moved on while the state — so far — has stayed behind to pick up the tab. But the community has collapsed, and with it a century-long political culture that combined pride in work, local social interdependence and inter-generational continuity.”

People in the communities Judt was writing about were “looking for someone to blame and someone to follow”, as he phrased it nearly 20 years before the Brexit vote.

Identity is a neglected aspect of the debate around deindustrialisation. Working people nowadays are encouraged to derive their identity from what they consume rather than what they do for work. Yet as Alex Smith, a former pit mechanic and member of the rescue service at Rugeley’s Lea Hall Colliery, told me, “People actually say, ‘I’m only at Amazon,’ and in the past they would’ve never said, ‘I’m only at the pit. You’d have said, ‘I’m a collier,’ because that’s what you were and you were proud of it.”

Rugeley’s experience will differ from that of many other former Labour-voting constituencies, but its lessons are certainly applicable elsewhere. As I wrote in April 2016, in a diary that would later turn into a book:

“Most of the men I spoke to that evening [in the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Club] planned to vote Leave in the forthcoming European Referendum, though almost all of them had voted Labour all their adult lives. It was the noticeable decline of Rugeley that seemed to bother them more than the presence of eastern European immigrants however.”

I don’t know how the individuals I met in Rugeley voted last week. Collectively, though, Cannock Chase gave the Tories an increased majority — despite its local MP, Amanda Milling, voting in 2015 for the Trade Union Bill, which will make it more difficult to bring dignity back to the working-class jobs in towns like Rugeley.

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Survey the town properly, however — delve behind the stereotypes about unreconstructed white folk nostalgic for a vanished era — and it’s no surprise that many residents long to “take back control” and to “get Brexit done”. Brexit may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory, but the people badly want change and they’ve been led to believe — hoodwinked some Remainers would say — into voting for the only change that is currently on offer.

Does this mean that Labour is correct to blame its humiliating election defeat on Brexit and Brexit alone? Hardly. Promising radical change is easy; persuading people that you are capable of delivering it is the hard part. And that’s where Labour floundered. You can promise what you like, however if only 16% of people trust you with the economy then it may as well be hot air.

To some extent, Labour’s dilemma is about economics. As Lisa Nandy has pointed out, our towns need investment (the fact that the usual types started mocking her for this on social media demonstrates just how much trouble Labour is in).

But it’s also about community: how do we reinvigorate the sense of community that towns like Rugeley once had in an era of Amazon, Netflix and a more generalised contempt for the folk who choose not to leave the towns they grew up in? Moreover, how do we ensure that migrants are not exploited, as they seemed to be in Rugeley, to undermine the rights of indigenous workers? And how does the Left reconcile its instinctive hostility to nationalism with the ordinary, inoffensive patriotism that is a fact of life in any English town?

As the infighting begins over what went wrong in Labour’s election campaign, I fear that these questions will get buried under a tide of invective and vitriol. Yet they are more important to the future of the Labour Party — more I think than most members realise — than another round of bloodletting over whether the Blairites or the Corbynistas are the true and authentic inheritors of the Labour mantle.

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