British election: How Labour Party's working-class vote crumbled and its nemesis won UK's north

Volunteers count votes in Clowne, England, on Dec 12, 2019. Labour suffered its worst election showing since 1935. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BARLBOROUGH, ENGLAND (NYTIMES) - They trudged through a stinging rain to polling stations, streams of people who once powered the left in Britain: ex-miners, supermarket clerks, retired schoolteachers, health aides.

But when they reemerged, they had voted not for the Labour Party, the side that had shepherded them through decades of political upheaval, but instead for their old nemesis, the party long despised here for shutting down the mines and shrinking the British state: the Conservatives.

"I'm from a Labour background: the coal pits and fighting Maggie Thatcher and everything else," said Ms Dawn Ridsdale, 56, an unemployed sales agent, as she stood outside the converted barn in Barlborough where she cast her ballot.

She had opposed Brexit, but now wanted someone with the ruthless streak of the prime minister who had closed the mines, Margaret Thatcher, to sort it out, once and for all.

"The country's on its backside," she said. "I've unfortunately had to vote for Boris. He's the best of a bad bunch."

She meant Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, the upper-class eccentric who defied half a century of political geography on Thursday (Dec 12) to tear through Labour's old coalition of small-town, working-class voters in the Midlands and north of England, a block of seats once thought so impregnable that it was called the Red Wall.

Down went at least nine seats that Labour had held without interruption since World War II. Down went a type of tribal politics in northern England, in which people inherited voting customs from their parents and grandparents, passing fights over mine closures and benefit cuts down the generations.

And down went Mr Dennis Skinner, the so-called Beast of Bolsover, an ex-miner and Labour lawmaker whose fusion of socialism and pro-Brexit values had put him in control of Bolsover, the constituency around Barlborough, for 49 years.

For Labour, which suffered its worst election defeat since 1935, the results signalled the end of an era of being able to reach into both thriving cities and left-behind former mining villages for votes. The party's two wings - pro- and anti-immigrant, young and old, university graduates and tradespeople - were cleaved.

"It's the detachment of the Labour Party from great swaths of the country, which they seem not to sympathise with," said Mr Robert Tombs, a historian at the University of Cambridge. "That leaves the party in a pretty dire position in the long term, unless it can miraculously reinvent itself."

The big, longstanding parties of the left started vanishing from Europe years ago as class alliances faded in a post-industrial economy. But the consequences of the political realignment in Britain, as in the US, are much graver because their two-party systems prevent left-wing parties from simply resolving their differences by splitting.

The left is now squabbling on both sides of the Atlantic, with both the Labour and Democratic parties grappling with a rancorous battle between young activists and more moderate voters.

The results on Thursday in Britain were a sobering lesson in the consequences of destroying age-old party alliances before new ones had time to germinate, analysts said.

"You'll have the pro-migration, culturally liberal left saying, 'We don't want to ally with racists,' and you'll have the socially conservative, economically left-wing part of the coalition saying, 'We don't ally with people who think we're racists,' and that's a very, very hard argument to resolve," said Professor Rob Ford, an expert of politics at the University of Manchester.

By Friday morning, Britons awoke to a Labour Party largely consigned to the cities of England. The Conservatives, on the other hand, harnessed the power of Brexit to storm districts where the party's brand had been toxic for generations.

In doing so, they replicated the success of US President Donald Trump in breaching the so-called Blue Wall in states like Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016, exploiting a combination of anti-immigrant messaging and dissolving class allegiances to take seats thought to belong to the Democrats.

Whether Britons voted for a permanent realignment on Thursday, or merely one long enough to carry them through Brexit and Mr Jeremy Corbyn's disastrous leadership of Labour, was the big unknown.

But outside the pubs, churches, schoolhouses and trailers where people in Bolsover cast their ballots on Thursday, it was clear that many ex-Labour voters felt more at home for the moment in Mr Johnson's Conservative Party than anywhere else.

They bemoaned a decade of broken promises, many of them made by the Conservative Party, but bought into Mr Johnson's idea that the political elite, and not his party, were to blame.

They were seething with anger: at immigrants, at Britain's postindustrial economy and at the constant gaze of the country's news media and political elite in the south, toward London.

And above all, the people who made up Labour's old base in Bolsover unburdened themselves of their withering feelings about Mr Corbyn, spitting epithets - "Marxist", "terrorist sympathiser", "idiot" - about a man who made them far more unhappy than even an old Etonian like Mr Johnson could.

In Bolsover, the market town at the centre of this sprawling district, one voter, Thomas, pointed from the polling station to where he had spent three decades working in a coal mine. For all its dangers, mining had held the promise of steady work and fair pay, and came with all the advantages of union protection now absent in the industries that took its place.

But for Thomas and his wife, Christine, who declined to give their last name because they did not want friends to know how they voted, frustration at the region's decline became wedded to anger at the immigrant workers who took the low-wage jobs that replaced mining.

"Jobs there should have gone to ex-miners, not to foreign workers," Christine said of a warehouse on the site of a nearby mine. "Instead you see ex-miners thrown in the scrap heap."

They had just been shopping near the warehouse, and found themselves among so many Polish people that, Thomas said, "we were foreigners".

Lifelong Labour voters, they broke from much of the party in supporting Brexit and then finally stopped voting for it because of Mr Corbyn's leadership, they said, dominated as it was by an economic agenda too far to the left and a leadership rooted in London.

"It hurts," Thomas said, though not all his allegiance was lost. "I still am a Labour man. I'll vote Labour again when they get rid of this lot."

Britain's political realignment holds risks for the Conservative Party, too.

Just as Republicans in the US seized the South, only to find themselves suddenly unable to win seats in places like New England, so too do the Conservatives risk losing their socially liberal voters in southern England if they become dominated by the ex-Labour heartlands of the north, Prof Ford said.

At the same time, in a country growing more diverse, the Labour Party will eventually benefit from aligning itself to socially liberal values - but not for some time, and not unless its supporters spread out across the electoral map, said Prof Tim Bale, a politics expert at Queen Mary University of London.

Many voters in Bolsover described a drift from Labour that started years ago, well before Brexit, as ties to trade unions frayed and the Labour leadership became identified with increasing immigration.

But it was Brexit that cemented their vote for the Conservatives. While the idea of rerunning the Brexit referendum a second time had taken hold in London, it sounded to voters in Bolsover, Leavers and Remainers alike, like a serious threat to democratic legitimacy.

"There's been a referendum, and there's a will of the people to leave, despite my personal beliefs," said Mr Craig Beddow, a retail worker in the area. "I don't think the country can risk a hung Parliament, because we're just static now. Despite my beliefs about Remain, I think we need to get on with it and let the country move on."

Not that he harboured any affection for Mr Johnson, whom he called "the worst conservative leader in my lifetime".

Mr Barry Salt, another voter, had similar sentiments, saying that Mr Johnson was "a fool," but that Mr Corbyn was worse: "He's going to turn this into a communist state if he's left alone."

Many voters knew and loved Mr Skinner, the longest-serving lawmaker running for a seat in this election, and some Labour loyalists said nothing could sway their vote.

"I'd vote for a donkey with a red rose on it," said Mr Jason Vardy, a bookmaker, referring to the symbol for Labour. His father, Stanley, an ex-miner, felt the same way: "If I voted Tory, my dad would've shot me."

But for others, being a Labour lawmaker was exactly what was wrong with Mr Skinner. Despite the lawmaker's own pro-Brexit views, the Labour label put him on the side of the big-city elites who looked down their noses at the north.

"If he weren't a Labour man, he'd be brilliant," said Mr Malcolm Shaw, a military veteran and ex-Labour voter, after ticking a box for the Conservatives.

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