Most people don’t follow politics closely, if at all, and their main complaint about politicians is: “why vote for them? It makes no difference”. And many of those who do so, a minority in local elections, act out of habit.
In vast swathes of working-class Britain, you voted Labour. You did so because, well, you did. You worked and Labour was the party of work: that’s what labour means, and you were a working man, or woman, or at least wanted to be.
The Conservatives were the party of capital, as you probably didn’t put it, and had a bigger stake in the system to conserve. But, like those who voted for them, you were patriotic: you loved your country.
In 2017, an unexpected event took place in Teesside, where the working-class presence is strong. The Conservative candidate, Ben Houchen, narrowly won its new mayoralty, pipping Labour to the post by a couple of thousand votes.
A month later, the Tories also won, despite a self-detonaing election campaign, six seats that they’d either not usually held, such as Middlesbrough South and Cleveland, or not held at all, such as Stoke-on-Trent South.
Working class voters in those constituencies who had previously supported Labour had begun to notice that the party’s values, culture and people were no longer aligning with its own.
Fewer of the latter worked with their hands; more of them were university-educated. They were less focused on real life – on jobs, living standards, and delivery – than on remote fixations, such as race (people in those six seats were largely white).
This had been so for a very long time, but it took Brexit to make voters in those constituencies notice, and act. The next two years in Parliament confirmed to them and others that a mass of Labour activists and some Labour MPs aren’t patriotic, either.
They drew this conclusion because the party increasingly voted in Parliament in ways that sought to defy the people’s own EU referendum verdict of 2016.
And Labour’s leaders blamed Britain’s own government, rather than the foreign side of the negotiating table, for every difficulty in the negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement.
The best-known Labour leader in recent times is Tony Blair, and it turned out that he had met Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Union, to advise him on the talks.
To a mass of working-class voters, and others too, this was akin to treason – like working for the other side during a war. They delivered their verdict in the general election of 2019.
In other words, voters may be slow to change their habits, doing so once in a generation if not more rarely but, once they have changed, the beneficiary has the chance to win them over.
Which takes us back to Houchen. Yesterday, he was re-elected – winning this time by over 75,000 votes, and piling up 73 per cent of the vote.
On values, he is aligned with his constituents, being fervently pro-Brexit. On policy, he is neutralising Labour – having, for example, taken Durham Tees Valley airport into public ownership.
Above all, he doesn’t just blame others for Teesside’s problems, and present its own voters as victims. Instead, he treats them as agents, whose lives, and those of their families and friends, can improve through their own efforts – if politicians get government right.
Turnout on Teesside was still below 30 per cent on Thursday, but Houchen has persuaded a lot of people who live there not only that he has the right values and policies but that, above all, he delivers.
This will have helped him, like other Conservatives elsewhere, to take the bulk of votes that Brexit Party won in 2019 in these elections (or so it seems at this stage).
Four of Teesside’s six constituencies are now Tory. One of the others, Stockton North, has a majority of only a thousand or so. Even Middlesbrough itself, with its majority of eight thousand or so, can no longer be assumed to be safe for Labour.
And it’s the same story elsewhere across much of the provincial North and Midlands: less so in the North-West, not much different in the West and East Midlands. Labour doesn’t now need so much a change of leader as a change of heart.
Right, left, centre: these terms are disputable. But if the last means anything at all, it means the political ground in which most people live. That’s where the Teesside Mayor and Prime Minister currently do, too. And where Labour doesn’t.