Corbyn and the entire party will have to be on best behaviour for Labour to win here
A lot of writing about the 2019 election has had an undertone of old-fashioned anthropology about it. Watch as our brave reporter goes to some depressing town and talks to a lot of angry working-class people who obligingly quote Sun headlines back! How much do you people back home not ‘get it’? You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen and heard on the road but they’re ‘authentic’, even if you people in ivory towers don’t like it. I’ve been to Bolsover, don’t you know, and talked to a shouty bloke in a pub on a council estate. We must bow our heads in respect to the wisdom of the common people which is never articulated in the establishment media (except in a thousand pieces like this one…)
I’m exaggerating a bit for effect. There is of course some very good reporting as well, and narratives do not come from thin air. there are a fair few alienated people who voted Leave and have supported Labour in the past, but fewer than you would think from vox-pops and political anthropologists. There are, as in Chester, other trends that cut across the ‘Labour’s lost its working class base’ talking point, such as Labour’s long term growth in cities and suburbia. Some of the Tories’ foundations have crumbled too, as part of a long term process that predates Brexit and Johnson’s populism, but we rarely hear about them.
Most of the long-term Labour seats which the Conservatives won in 2017, or which are seriously threatened by the Tories in this election, do not fit the stereotype of hitherto solid working-class fortresses. Wakefield and Mansfield were close contests in 1983 and 1987 respectively; Robert Waller in his Almanacs of British Politics written in the mid-1980s wrote that the growth of owner-occupied, car-driving suburbia in North East Derbyshire made that seat a potential Tory gain, and pointed out that the new boundaries of Don Valley included the middle class suburbs that had turned the Doncaster seat blue in 1951-64. Bishop Auckland has always had substantial rural and middle-class elements and voted Labour by only 44-36 in 1983; the Tories polled just shy of 40 per cent in Sedgefield in 1970… in the excitement of current affairs we might forget that there have always been working class Tories and that units as big as a constituency are rarely homogeneous.
Wrexham is another hitherto Labour seat that gets stereotyped. However, like Chester across the border many of its social indicators are not far from the national median. The visitor will be disappointed if they are expecting dereliction and despair to contrast with the alleged land of comfort that is Chester. Wrexham has its nice areas and not so nice areas. I spent most of my short visit to the town in one of the nice areas, Acton Park to the north of the town centre. On a bright winter day the townscape reminded me powerfully of my own 1970s childhood in Southampton – a mix of well-maintained 1930s semi-detached houses, neat 1940s council houses and smaller dark-brick Edwardian terraces as I got closer to Rhosddu. It isn’t really any different from a Chester suburb either, except for the local accent – the linguistic border is a hard one, switching from the near-Scouse tones of Chester immediately to a Welsh lilt in Wrexham as soon as you cross the bridge from one to the other.
Wrexham’s rougher side comes in two varieties – former mining settlements in Llay and Gresford, and the large Caia Park council estate which is where many of the town’s social problems are concentrated. There were riots here in 2003 with racist youths attacking Iraqi asylum-seekers and then fighting the police with petrol bombs, but a lot of hard work on building community relations and improving the life of the estate followed in the years afterwards.
Wrexham’s economy does depend more on manufacturing industry than most places (it was 9th in the country for manufacturing employment in 2011) and mostly because of Caia Park it does have a fairly large share of people in council housing. As with Chester, higher education has been a growing influence in Wrexham but the student enrolment at Wrexham Glyndŵr University (established 2008) is about half what it is at Chester. One does notice the contrast, though, between Chester’s stunning city centre and the more ordinary town centre of Wrexham, which as in many towns is a gloomy spectacle as a December evening draws in. Wrexham has always had a role as a market town set in industrial countryside, but this aspect of the town clearly needs attention. In another contrast to Chester’s civic life, local politics has been a sorry spectacle in Wrexham with warring parties and parochial Independents failing to provide a lead or bring the town together.
Wrexham has never been overwhelmingly Labour. The party’s highest share of the vote since 1974 was the 56 per cent the party won in 1997. Labour is more usually in the high 40 per cent range in good elections or 34-37 when at a low ebb. The Conservatives have never gone below 20 per cent and in the party’s better elections it can poll more than a third of the vote. In 1983 the Conservatives came within 424 votes of winning Wrexham. Since then the pits have closed, something that – after a lag – starts a long-term trend to the Conservatives, but Wrexham has stayed in the Labour column in general elections. The first time since 1931 that Labour lost the constituency was in the 2007 Welsh Assembly election when former Labour MP and AM John Marek stood and won at the head of his own small left-of-centre party. Marek has subsequently gone over to the Conservatives. Ian Lucas, who has just stood down as MP but remains strongly supportive of Labour, took over from Marek as MP in 2001.
A Survation survey for the Economist found the Conservatives about 15 points ahead in Wrexham
The 2017 election saw a sharp jump in the Tory vote share; their 43.7 per cent was the highest the party has ever achieved in Wrexham. The reason they failed to gain the seat last time was that the Labour share of the vote surged by a very similar amount – the Labour majority was up by exactly 1 vote from 1,831 in 2015 to 1,832 although because of the higher turnout this represented a smaller percentage. The two main parties together polled 93 per cent of the vote, up from 69 per cent in 2015, remarkable in the context of multi-party competition in Wales.
The close results in 2015 and 2017, the 2016 Leave vote in Wrexham and the competitiveness of the Conservatives in these sorts of seats mean that Lucas’s successor Mary Wimbury faces a tough election. The polls bear this out – a Survation survey for the Economist found the Conservatives about 15 points ahead in Wrexham, about 44-29, which would be a huge swing (10 per cent) since 2017 caused by the splintering of the Labour vote rather than the small increase in the Tory share. The big YouGov MRP projection suggested by contrast that Labour were lagging only four points behind in Wrexham – 42 per cent for the Tories, 38 per cent for Labour and Lib Dem (6), Brexit (7), Plaid Cymru (4) and Green (2) trailing far behind. The swing from the 2017 result would be only a little over average. 4 points is a margin that is susceptible to movements in the campaign or indeed polling and model error, but 15 points isn’t really.
Mary Wimbury herself is an engaging presence on the doorstep – patient, polite and non-egotistical – and steeped in Labour traditions. Despite some laughable efforts by the other side to portray her as ‘Momentum Mary’, she has been an absolutely consistent opponent of the hard left. The campaign team I saw her with were a friendly, cheerful mix of ages and probably of political stands but their regard for Mary, who was selected not long before the campaign started, was obvious. (I should probably declare an interest, in that Mary is a long-standing friend of mine.)
Labour candidates in marginals like Chester and Wrexham have swung a lot of voters round in conversation
The problem that Wimbury, and Matheson across the border, face is less to do with Brexit than it is to do with Jeremy Corbyn. On my afternoon in Acton Park, I saw the problem vividly demonstrated. Mary spoke to a voter from an attractive suburban house who was soft-spoken, cheerful and gentle, and basically aligned to Labour values, but could not stand Corbyn – she did not trust him and specifically brought up anti-Semitism. Mary, like Chris, has had to work out what to say when voters bring up the leadership issue; both pledge to fight within the party to ensure that it does better, and both stress that it’s their name on the ballot paper – and that Chester and Wrexham were both Labour in 2017 but Corbyn didn’t become Prime Minister then. Mary was able to nudge the elector back towards the ‘undecided’ column but Corbyn and the entire party will have to be on best behaviour for the rest of the campaign in order for her to plump for Labour. It doesn’t seem likely.
That conversation has been replicated thousands of times across the country. In 2017, and to some extent in 2015 when voters doubted Ed Miliband’s competence rather than his intentions, Labour candidates in marginals like Chester and Wrexham have swung a lot of voters round through the hard work of conversations like that one. It feels to some experienced campaigners as if the party is wilfully playing Russian roulette with both its old and new electorates. Pull the trigger in 2015 – click. Pull the trigger in 2017 – click. Pull the trigger in 2019… do you feel lucky, punk? Well do you?
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