THE Labour Party lost many seats in its former heartlands — the “red wall” — at the General Election last Friday. Constituencies that have never been “blue” before — such as Sedgefield, Bishop Auckland, Great Grimsby, and Mansfield — are now represented by Conservative MPs.
Clergy in these constituencies have expressed shock at the result, but also said that there had been a feeling that this was a long time coming.
Most of the clergy attributed the results to Brexit, which a majority of voters in these areas had voted for, and which the Labour Party was seen as opposing. “Get Brexit done” was the Conservative Party’s campaign slogan.
The Vicar of St Paul’s, Bury, in the Bury North constituency, the Revd Julian Heaton, said: “The impression I get is that this was a vote for a desire to get Brexit done.” The Vicar of St Peter’s, Redcar, Canon Rachel Harrison, said: “There is a real sense of being left behind. I think I can only put it down to Brexit.”
Canon Andrew Dodd, the Team Rector of Great Grimsby and the Area Dean of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, concurred: “It was all about Brexit. It was a way people could affirm their 2016 vote, and the Conservative message was very clear.”
Another issue was people’s view of the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Canon Alec Harding, the Vicar and Area Dean of Barnard Castle, in Bishop Auckland constituency, reported that a fellow school governor had told him that Mr Corbyn had frequently been spoken of negatively on the doorstep.
Canon Harding said: “I have sadness for our very hard-working former MP, who happens to be a member of our congregation. It has been coming for quite some time, although the new MP is going to have a challenge to live up to expectations. People have been living with the collective nervous breakdown over the last three years, and wanted to ‘back Boris’ to get Brexit done with.
“We send loads and loads of stuff to the foodbanks; people are absolutely exhausted at making ends meet. The cuts have been severe. But they didn’t just not vote, they voted for Boris: he offered the most hope.”
One north-eastern constituency that retained its Labour MP was Hartlepool, where the majority vote was split between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party. Canon Graeme Buttery, the Vicar of St Oswald’s, Hartlepool, said that he was “surprised” at that result.
“It surprised me that Mike Hill was still the MP. The engagement has been knocked out of the people here over decades — they don’t really engage with anything. The turnout was only 57 per cent. An awful lot of folk here would never vote Tory, but voted for the sharp focus of the Brexit Party. . .
“Some of Labour’s ideas were seen as wonderful, but you get that strong degree of common sense and scepticism. People think ‘Someone has to pay for this.’
“In areas like Hartlepool, whoever gives them the power to change their own lives, or does things that people can see or believe in, people would start to turn. And it would have to be in language that folk understand. That’s where it has to start — the everyday, building communities of hope.”
He said that people in Hartlepool “end up thinking nobody is going to help us . . . or nobody is listening to us”.
Canon Dodd said: “We very much see the effects of austerity. On the high street, shops are closing, the shopping centre has a new void every week. There are visible signs like homelessness.
“The austerity was trumped by Boris, with his commitment to spending. Culturally, it would have been a very hard thing to do, with generations of people who have connections to the Labour Party. People would have found it hard to put their trust in Jeremy Corbyn, who seemed like he did not represent the people of Grimsby.”
The impact of austerity could also be seen in Redcar, Canon Harrison said. “It’s difficult for young people to have aspirations here; people are still feeling the effects of most of the steelworks closing. Austerity has been very obvious in town. Redcar has the most magnificent beaches, but it is difficult to attract people when there are no good shops.
“The people of Redcar want someone who will fight their corner. The lack of popularity of the [Labour] leader was definitely a factor. In general, people wanted Brexit addressed: I think that’s probably the answer.”
Mr Heaton said: “Wider national issues might play on people’s minds, but it is not what they talk about.”
Read more on the election result in this week’s letters to the Editor