Ben Bradley is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Mansfield.
Last week saw an historic Conservative victory, not just in terms of its scale but also its geography. The ‘Red Wall’ of Labour seats across the Midlands and North of England crumbled to dust as the election night coverage announced ‘Conservative gain’ over and over; Darlington, Bishop Auckland, Redcar, Blyth Valley, Ashfield, Bolsover… too many to name.
It was an incredible night and a result that really shouldn’t be a massive surprise. It’s something that those Conservatives who already represent and understand some of the issues and viewpoints from these communities have been predicting. We’ve been calling for a ‘Blue Collar Conservative’ revolution and a focus on the issues that matter to those working class towns outside of the Westminster bubble. This time we had a manifesto that dealt with those issues; investing in public services, tough on crime, prioritising the NHS, directing the cash to infrastructure for the regions.
Over the weekend a journalist described Mansfield to me as “the first blue brick in the red wall”. I have to say I love that analogy, it plays to my ego of course, and is something I’m hugely proud of. There are lessons to learn from Mansfield, as well as from North East Derbyshire, Stoke, Walsall and Middlesborough that were won in 2017, and now of course from the many other seats like them that have voted blue for the first time.
Since I was elected in 2017 I’ve been at pains to try and explain the difference between Labour voters in Islington and in Mansfield. It’s not ideological up north, it’s historic. It’s not socialism that drove the Labour vote, but industry. You’ve only got to watch an episode of Peaky Blinders to get the gist of why Labour was born as a movement; protecting workers, fighting for better conditions. Some of the leaders of that movement were socialists, but the workers were largely just trying to improve their lot. To put food on the table. It was about them and their families, not some wider ideology. So many people in places like Mansfield spent their whole working lives in highly unionised industries, where you couldn’t get a job without joining up to the union and paying in to the Labour Party. That was just how it was. “We are Labour round here”.
It made sense in many ways, to back the “party of the workers” when you felt your conditions were poor. It wasn’t an ideological commitment to socialism, it was about improving life for you and your family, about getting on and a sense of community. It was an innately conservative stance, actually, wanting to be rewarded for your work and aspiring to a better life for your family, very similar to the message we now hold at the centre of our Conservative Party.
From an ideological perspective if you’re going to be a socialist you have to be able to afford it! You have to have enough money already to not be concerned about the state taking more away. You have to be able to afford to rise above the control of an oversized state and to extricate yourself from the things that will impact on your freedoms. If you’re scrapping around to put food on the table, the idea of having more taken from you to fund others when you are the one grafting 50 hours a week is horrifying. It’s not pro-worker, it’s hitting the workers the hardest.
Labour doesn’t get that any more. It looks down on working people rather than helping them up. It calls for an end to aspiration and self-improvement. The message is “don’t save or train for a new job or buy a house. There is no point. You are too downtrodden and the rich elites will never let you.”
If you’re struggling, you want hope, not misery. A hand up not a hand out. You don’t want to be told that the whole system is rigged against you, you want to see that there are opportunities to be seized and a chance to make things better. Labour in places like Mansfield have spent decades harking back instead of looking forwards. When I stood in 2017, my Labour opponent, the MP of 30 years, said “it will just remind people about what Mrs Thatcher did”. As it happens I think people were sick of being reminded. It was before I was born! People want to move on and are fed up with politicians blaming people instead of acting. There’s only so long you can moan about the past when you’re failing to do anything to take us forward. People want hope, not misery. That’s why the red wall has fallen. It was a wall built to hold people back. Where once there was a wall, we need to build a ladder.
Even Brexit falls in to that argument, too. These communities voted to Leave, just to be told they were wrong, thick, racist. That they were condemned to misery and failure as a result, and that Labour refused to deliver it. Lecturing instead of listening. We’re hearing the same narrative now from left-wing figures; ‘‘the right-wing MSM have duped these working class people, they can’t think for themselves and they’ll regret it’’.
So far, Labour haven’t learned from their mistake. They are responding in the same way they responded to defeat in the referendum, and without accepting the blame for their failures they’ll only repeat the cycle. They have to look at themselves. They need to understand these reasons that they lost, not just blame the media and ‘stupid voters’. If they keep saying ‘our message was right but people didn’t understand’ or that is was just solely about Corbyn and not about their wider offering, they will struggle to recover.
Don’t get me wrong: we’ve not turned everyone in the North East in to hardcore Tories. For many it was a tough thing to vote blue; for many we were the least-worst option. The good news is that we are saying the right things, but we are not trusted. No politicians are trusted right now. Come the next election Brexit will not be there, Corbyn will not be there. It remains to be seen if we’ll face a competent Labour Party or not.
Either way, we have a point to prove and we have to repay the people who have put us in to power. They have done so off the back of our message, our Blue Collar Conservative promises to back our public services and invest in these places that have so often been forgotten. The proof will be in the delivery; in showing whose side we are on. We have to show a tangible difference and improvement, and we have to restore some faith in Government and politicians. If we deliver, if we get this right, then this could be an incredible few years for our country.