Labor must do more than support Brexit to rebuild the ‘red wall’
On Thursday, as the fires of hell scorched the east coast of England, I bravely fought the rail transport system and traveled south to the city of Hull, defying health advice, melting the tarmac and distorting the rails.
I traveled to the annual convocation of the University of Hull where I was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, honors causa, as a former graduate of the university.
A lot has changed since I was a freckled teenager who ventured south from Perth to study at the university’s Gulbenkian Drama Studio. It pains me to admit it decades later, but it was the place where I tried on my first pair of nylon pantyhose, a prerequisite for studying theater and not an alliance with the transgender debate which divides.
Two things have always struck me as unique about Hull. First of all, it’s a flat city with barely a slope, let alone a hill, so many thousands of people cycled through the city, long before the bicycle became a fashion item. Sometimes Hull looks more like a Dutch outlying port than a British city.
Throughout its civic history, Hull has had a rich but increasingly strained relationship with Europe.
The other difference was its supposed independence. Nestled on the coast away from the rest of the north, even its train station is a terminus.
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Hull has always protected this sense of difference. It has its own telephone system thanks to the local council and the pioneer telephone company, Kingston Communications. While the rest of Britain had standard red-coloured telephone boxes, Hull’s telephone boxes were cream-coloured.
I was lucky enough to come to Hull as part of a golden generation of students and staff. Philip Larkin was the campus librarian and I shared study space with Anthony “Tony” Minghella who became an Oscar winner for his film The English Patient.
Although he grew up on the Isle of Wight in an ice cream dynasty, his father was born in Coatbridge and a passion for Scotland ran through this remarkable family. One of our joint projects was a drama about Italians interned as prisoners of war in Scotland in the 1940s.
Historically, the Kingston-Upon-Hull East constituency, like Coatbridge, was a strong Labour, virtually impregnable as one of the pillars of the so-called ‘red wall’ of Labor dominance in the industrial north.
When I first set foot in the city, key industries like fishing, food processing and telecommunications were thriving and miles of new social housing stretched to the sea across Bransholme and Orchard Park.
Local MP Harry Pursey, a naval officer whose career began as a deckhand, won 65% of the local vote with nearly 35,000 people voting for him in the 1966 election. of those constituencies where Labor could have put an Alsatian dog and he would have barked his way to victory.
The fishing industry and its local unions had a tight grip on local political power, and by 1970 Hull East’s most famous MP, John Prescott, had succeeded in boosting Labor’s vote share to an astonishing 71 .44%.
Prescott was a full-time employee of the National Seamen’s Union and graduated from the University of Hull, after a stint at the union-run Ruskin College. Ironically, he easily took the seat in a straight fight with Norman Lamont (below), the Lerwick-born Tory who later became Chancellor of the Exchequer and a leading member of the eurosceptic pressure group Leave Means Leave.
Eventually, Euroscepticism and the complexity of fishing quotas began to eat away at Labor hegemony in East Hull. But that was nothing compared to the demographic shifts altering the views of the traditional working class as they became homeowners, started their own small businesses or watched Thatcherism eat away at their neighborhoods.
In 2001 Prescott was a household name and made headlines when he was hit by an egg thrown by a protester in Rhyl on the day the Labor Manifesto was launched. Prescott fought back, punching his attacker and winning new approval in many working-class communities. The incident did not shake Prescott’s popularity locally where he easily saw another candidate with Scottish connections.
His closest rival this time was a Liberal Democrat rookie, Jo Swinson, inspired by Milngavie, whose dream of becoming prime minister was ended by the SNP.
Prescott’s electoral dominance faded and, like so many Labor greats, he donned the ermine and huddled in the House of Lords. Hull was now a marginal seat. Current MP Karl Turner holds a worrying lead for Labour.
Brexit also tells its own telling story, as a city that once thrived in part on its relationship with Europe eventually voted 67.5% to leave. Ironically, in the 2019 general election, it was the Brexit party that split the vote, unwittingly preventing the Tories from taking the once strong Labor seat.
Hull is exceptionally close to Europe. When I arrived at the local station there were two exits, one to the city center and the other to the Hook of Holland. At the time, it took longer to get from Perth to Hull by train than it did to get from Hull to Zeebrugge by ferry.
But the geography that once gave Hull an economic advantage in European trade has diminished with Brexit. By comparison, Ireland’s trading history with Europe clearly shows the advantages of direct routes to Europe. Ireland now has 44 trade routes to EU countries which bypass the UK and have transformed their freight and sea links, some of which have eaten away at the local Hull economy and Brexit has not only makes the situation worse.
All of these issues – the lost industries, the withdrawal from Europe, the reconfiguration of the working class vote – bring us back to the current Labor Party and its aspirations to regain power. Winning Hull next time around will be mission critical to their hopes of forming a government.
The Boris Johnson-era meltdown and the sour taste he left in many voters’ mouths may be enough on its own to save Hull from a once unthinkable outcome, voting in a local Tory MP, but it may not yet be enough to bring Keir Starmer to Downing Street.
I can’t be the only one wondering how Labor can execute their current strategy without further alienating their grassroots support. The strategy seems determined to triangulate Tory behavior, attract a press that will undoubtedly backfire, and slam the door on EU membership, in the belief that it will somehow blow them away. another to disenchanted older voters.
In a speech last week, Starmer (above) said: ‘With Labour, Britain will not return to the EU. We will not enter the single market. We will not join a customs union. We will not return to freedom of movement to create short-term solutions. Instead, we will invest in our people and our places, and we will deliver on our country’s promise.
It’s a risky proposition, which could invite some pro-Brexit Labor supporters back into the fold, but it risks being out of step with Hull’s position as an English city that looks enviously at Europe and risks to assume that the red wall constituencies Labor needs to win back are easy to understand, but they are not.
James Graham, another Hull Drama graduate and author of the excellent BBC series Sherwood, recently argued against simplistic assumptions about ‘red walls’ and Brexiteers. Speaking of his childhood in a mining community in Nottingham, he told the Sheffield Documentary Festival: “These overly simplistic snapshots often mistakenly suggest that there is a seamless uniformity between people, their experiences and their points of view. My home country is as complicated, paradoxical and incoherent as anywhere else.
It is a sentiment that we in Scotland must bear in mind in the critical days ahead. Voters are not homogeneous and they can be inconsistent.