Joyce McMillan: Lessons to learn for Labour in South Yorkshire

Mark Thomass The Red Shed at the Traverse is perceptive about political alienation in towns like Wakefield. Picture: Contributed
Mark Thomass The Red Shed at the Traverse is perceptive about political alienation in towns like Wakefield. Picture: Contributed
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Brexit happened because people felt their votes didn’t count. Labour needs to prove them wrong, writes Joyce McMillan

The Red Shed is a place in Wakefield, a working people’s club with a reputation for fine beer, good talk, and a great entertainment programme. It’s also the title of the latest Edinburgh Fringe show by the acclaimed stand-up comedian and campaigner Mark Thomas, playing at the Traverse; and it tells the story of how Thomas came to know the Red Shed when he performed one of his first solo gigs there in the 1980s, and of how he recently returned there, on a personal quest with profound political resonances.

It’s a show for people of the Left, of course; Thomas makes it clear, early on, that any Tories offended by his views on Margaret Thatcher can find the exits at the back. Yet everyone who is interested in the current state of UK politics should be prepared to listen to what Thomas has to say about the recent history of South Yorkshire, which he has known and loved since, as a student, he became involved in the 1984-85 miners’ strike that shaped his politics.

“Labour left us.” says one of his old friends at the Shed, as Thomas tries to understand the huge Brexit vote in places like Wakefield; and Thomas offers an image of EU referendum day as the moment when communities whose “votes hadn’t mattered for years” – ignored by the Tories, culturally and politically abandoned by New Labour – decided to give the political establishment the kicking it so richly deserves, and to make a general protest against an age of globalization that, for them, has brought little but pain.

It’s against this backdrop that we must try to understand the current convulsion in the Labour Party, now being played out in the Court of Appeal, in a fierce internecine battle over the right to vote in the current leadership election. In particular, we need to understand the pressures that led Labour into the trap of seeming to abandon its traditional supporters in Scotland and the North of England, to the point where their vote in these areas began to collapse and they sought alternatives – in Scotland, the SNP, in the North of England the Tories or Ukip.

Although many of those pressures were cultural and ideological, Thomas’s account of the referendum vote offers us a clue to another structural force that drove the New Labour revolution, with all its consequences; and that is the persistence at Westminster of the first-past-the-post voting system, which guarantees that the votes of people living in “safe seats” – ie the vast majority of seats – barely count at all, while the outcome of general elections is determined by a few tens of thousands of voters who have no particular party allegiance, and who happen to live in marginal seats, most of them concentrated in the South-east and the West Midlands.

I first noticed the extraordinary role played by these “swing voters in key marginals” at the time of John Major’s surprise election victory in 1992, when I calculated that if just 11,000 voters in those seats – about one thirtieth of one per cent of those who voted – had switched from Tory to Labour, John Major would have been denied the crucial overall majority that, among other things, delayed Scottish self-government for another half decade.

Whatever other forces were also in play, it was the perceived need to win over those voters that first drove Labour into its intense and eventually fatal obsession with a tiny, crucial segment of the electorate whose views, by and large, seemed to be forged not by a wider sense of what kind of society they wanted to live in, but by a depressing mix of short-term materialism, and the kind of right-wing views promoted by much of the popular media.

Now it goes without saying that given a more balanced electoral system – like the one used for the Scottish Parliament, which does reflect the broad balance of votes cast – the Labour Party of the 1990s and 2000s would have been compelled to weigh the demands of those elusive swing voters against the growing doubts of many of their traditional supporters in Scotland and the northern England.

They would have had to move much sooner to take account of the dwindling real wages, the collapsing job security, and the growth of abusive phenomena like zero hours contracts, that began to affect many communities even before the financial crash of 2008. And they would have had to make the effort to find a 21st century politics that would speak to the people of Harlow, Wakefield, and Paisley; instead of proudly focussing their efforts, and increasingly the whole culture of their party, only on the places that form the key first-past-the-post battlegrounds – until they turned round to find Scotland gone, and northern England starting to crumble towards the far right.

It remains to be seen whether Labour can find a way back from this impasse, so long as the Westminster system remains unreformed. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership is itself divided over proportional representation, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell a long-standing supporter, Corbyn himself less keen; and he seems equally unenthusiastic about the idea of electoral pacts with other parties.

Yet the iron logic of the current system – the small number of marginal seats, their location and demographics, the influence on them of a hostile media – suggests that without such pacts we are doomed to a long generation of Tory rule, no matter how impressive a job Jeremy Corbyn may do of rebuilding Labour support in some of the party’s traditional heartlands. That means that unprecedented alliances may indeed have to made, if UK democracy is ever to move forward into new times; and to shake itself free of an electoral system that has failed the people of towns like Wakefield, helped shape the forces that are wrenching us out of the EU, and put the Union itself at continuing risk, by offering democracy, but delivering only its skewed and bombastic shadow, in a Westminster world where some votes count, but most hardly matter at all.