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'Compulsory reading': Lord Austin reviews Sebastian Payne’s 'Broken Heartlands'

| Alamy

3 min read

A brilliant book, Sebastian Payne’s political road-trip is essential reading for everyone in the Labour Party who wants to know why it lost the last election so badly

Broken Heartlands should be compulsory reading for everyone in the Labour Party who wants to know why Labour lost the last election so badly – and for anyone in the Conservative Party who wants to understand how to hold on to the Red Wall seats they won for the first time 18 months or so ago.

In fact, if I were planning the Labour Conference in a few weeks’ time, I would cancel the same old speeches about how terrible the Tories are that no one will remember by shadow ministers no one has ever heard of and invite Sebastian Payne to spend a day setting out what this brilliant book teaches us about Labour’s problems.

Payne started from his hometown in Gateshead and then criss-crossed the country interviewing Labour leaders, MPs, former MPs, the new Tories who defeated them and local councillors – as well as hundreds of people who had turned their back on the party they relied on to stand up for them but which they believe no longer understands their lives, communities, concerns or aspirations.

The decline in Labour’s fortunes goes much deeper and further back

In seat after seat, and town after town, he met people who love their country, are proud of their community, believe in hard work and paying your way, strong defence, robust borders and who sympathise with victims not criminals. Interview after interview with middle and lower-income mainstream people showed how far Labour has drifted away not just from articulating their concerns but understanding them and their lives.

The book shows the huge damage caused by Corbyn’s terrible leadership and the extremism that poisoned the party while the hard left was in charge and it spells out just how damaging its attempts to block Brexit before the 2019 election – and then promise a second referendum during the campaign – were. 

But it shows as well that these two catastrophic factors were just the straw that broke the camel’s back for many lifelong Labour voters. Payne’s journey shows that the decline in Labour’s fortunes goes much deeper and further back. In some of the constituencies he visited people have prospered, and their communities now have a lot in common with southern seats that have traditionally voted for the Conservative Party.

In other seats in the midlands and the north, the decline of traditional industries and the institutions linked to them like trade unions meant that the Labour Party sounded and looked less and less like the people it traditionally represented. Industrial decline often meant the quality of jobs declined, town centres struggled and young people moved away to university and then to better jobs in London and other major cities. And then the people who remained in those communities who had relied on Labour to protect them, their jobs and communities, took out their frustration and anger on the party they think has let them down.

The inevitable question Payne’s book raises is whether this long-term trend can be reversed. Unfortunately for Labour, from the interviews he conducted, not many of the people who finally switched to Boris in 2019 look like they’re having second thoughts yet.

Lord Austin of Dudley is a Non-affiliated peer and former Labour MP for Dudley North from 2005 to 2019

Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne is published by Macmillan

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