Opinion: South Yorkshire stays Labour — for now

Labour are facing far-reaching questions after suffering a series of defeats to the Conservatives in its Yorkshire heartlands as Boris Johnson’s gamble on a snap general election paid off with a Commons majority.

The biggest upset of the night was in Don Valley where Labour’s Caroline Flint, who has represented the constituency for 22 years, lost her seat to the Conservative’s Nick Fletcher. She had been elected under the landslide of Tony Blair in 1997 and the seat had been Labour-held since 1922. 

Caroline Flint lost her seat, Labour since 1922, in Don Valley

There was a glimmer of hope for Labour in Sheffield Hallam as Olivia Blake managed to steal victory from the Liberal Democrat candidate Laura Gordon. Despite acting as an interim MP for the constituency it was not enough for Ms Gordon, losing to Ms Blake with a majority of 712 — a total number of votes of 19,709 to 18,997.  

Paul Blomfield won the biggest Labour majority in Sheffield Central with 27,273 votes. In Hillsborough and Brightside, Gill Furniss returned a majority of 12,000, and Louise Haigh will represent the Sheffield Heeley constituency for a third time, but with a reduced majority of 8,520.

Paul Blomfield holds a comfortable majority in Sheffield Central

Meanwhile, Penistone and Stocksbridge, said to be ‘incredibly close’ according to both Labour and Conservative sources, ended up with a Conservative majority of 7,000. 

These statistics hold a stark reality for many Labour supporters. South Yorkshire was once known to be a ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’, after Labour gained Sheffield Hallam at the 2017 general election and controlled every seat in South Yorkshire for the first time. Labour supporters may see the region as one of the last bastions of the great ‘Red Wall’ — but its bricks are crumbling. 

For many northern Leave voters, Brexit now seems to have less about leaving the EU and more to do with the fact that they won a democratic vote while Remainers across South Yorkshire have forgetten that they lost the referendum at all.

Even with Labour appearing to have focused resources to marginals during this campaign period, many Labour seats in South Yorkshire have had their majorities slashed. Both Barnsley Central’s Dan Jarvis and Barnsley’s East Stephanie Peacock saw their lead decrease by around three quarters. 

The Brexit Party was partially to blame, with Victoria Felton winning 11,233 votes to the 14,804 cast for Dan Jarvis. Jim Ferguson took 11,112 against Stephanie Peacock’s 14,329.

This isn’t just a shift in voting, it’s a shift in the generations-long culture of backing a party on principles. A change including the extraordinary vista of Leave-voting former mining communities embracing a Conservative party blamed in the past for laying waste to them in the 1980s.

Ed Miliband in Doncaster North holds onto his seat with only a 2,370 majority

Brexit has dominated. Labour thought their policies could cut through the noise and provide well-intentioned reasonable debate on the state of British affairs. They were wrong.

This Labour meltdown has been building for decades no doubt to party activists playing bingo with new-left ideas, most of which look and sound utterly absurd on a doorstep on a rainy morning. It is true, and commendable, that many of these ideas are interesting, but few of them were scrutinised or patiently argued for.

If anything these policies looked too far into the future of what could be for Britain, rather than asking the most fundamental questions: how will the economy function against the climate emergency? What do the public actually want from politics and economics? If profit is no longer the answer, then what is the economy for?

For these questions to be answered on the doorstep, Labour should have focused less on its campaign from the direction of Westminster, and its policies operating from remote state institutions, and instead focus itself on rebuilding the community it has lost. Where were the social clubs, the tenants unions, the education centres, that could have helped Labour to win?

Only if Labour can reinvigorate these institutions fit for 21st century Britain with a new history away from its mining heartlands will Labour ever have a chance of gaining trust back from the communities it took for granted.

And while South Yorkshire continues to be red, in some respects, Yorkshire now bleeds a pale scarlet bubbling ferociously into blue — the blue of the those who felt they had been taken for granted in the heartlands.