We cheered, when Tory strongholds like Canterbury, or Kensington, fell. It was one thing for the red wave to reach the bellwethers and swing constituencies. It was one thing to be competitive in safe seats, or experience a surprising surge in the affluent south-west. But Labour was stealing the crown jewels.
Of course, the other side of this, was the 'Ukip effect'. Were it not for the Corbyn surge, this would have been the story: a sharp, alarming rise in Tory voting in northern and especially north-eastern constituencies. This effect, contrary to popular perception, did materialise -- it is just that, in most cases, especially the West Midlands, it was drowned out by a surge in Labour's turnout. Mansfield was one exception to this trend, and Momentum, having got its candidate nominated by the local Labour Party, is now targeting the seat in the hope of destroying Ben Bradley's thin majority.
The fractured lines of politicisation in Britain today are not indifferent to class. But they do reflect regional and generational fractures in class experience. The Tories in 2017 did very well among "C2" voters, among whom they made their biggest gains and even took a leader over Labour -- but, crucially, not among young "C2" voters. Within this category, there was a high proportion of "homeowners in ex-industrial areas". Many of these voters are clustered in seats, like Stoke-on-Trent South, Mansfield, Walsall North, Middlesbrough South and Cleveland, which the Tories gained from Labour. And, among the groups the Tories did well in, these voters were the least likely to have voted Conservative before.
Mansfield was one of those constituencies where, in 2015, the combined Conservative-Ukip vote was bigger than fifty per cent. Labour's incumbency was weak, with the vote hovering below 40% in a seat where for most of its history the Labour vote had been close to two-thirds. The only reason the Conservative margin after 2017 is relatively small, despite putting on an extra ten thousand votes, is that here as elsewhere Labour hugely improved its voter turnout. The local MP, Alan Meale, plausibly credited the manifesto with creating a surge in Labour's support locally. In many other constituencies, this was enough to see off the looming blue beast, albeit without preventing the Tories from making big gains.
Mansfield is the sort of place that journalists began to visit with a trained zoological curiosity after the Brexit vote: an old district, an old ex-mining town, overwhelmingly 'white British', and Christian, with only 266 self-identified Jedi Knights. Now, that the miners have been broken in confrontation with the British state, the local workforce are disproportionately unemployed (19.8%) or pensioners (24.1%), while the biggest chunk of those who work are in 'unskilled' manual labour. Wages in Mansfield are among the lowest in the UK.
There is one area where Mansfield is doing slightly better than elsewhere in the country, however, and that is home ownership. Not only is the rate of owner-occupation in Mansfield (69%) higher than the national average (65%), but the majority of the homes are either semi-detached (43.1%) or detached (27.1%). The problems of those crushed by the housing market in big cities are not relevant in Mansfield.
It is often mentioned as a kind of curiosity that Mansfield saw "clashes" during the miners' strike.
To evade the political nature of these fights, and what that meant for trade unionism and Labourism, is actually to miss the story. The fact that Labour has historically been strong in Mansfield, and that it was historically at the heart of the local mining industry, does not mean that it has historically been left-wing. It has not.
The SDP took close to a quarter of the vote in Mansfield in the 1980s, campaigning on an anti-Scargill ticket. It was locally the heartland of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, the scab union that broke from the NUM and, funded by Tory operator David Hart and enabled by future New Labour lord chancellor Charles Falconer, helped break the strike. Most of the Nottinghamshire miners never went out on strike in the first place. Just over a quarter of them supported it, and most of them scabbed for the duration. The Nottingham coalfield was the strategic pivot of the government's efforts to break the NUM.
There are historically complex reasons why the majority of Nottinghamshire mineworkers were among the least militant during the 1984-5 strike. Unevenness of conditions and wages for miners had long been an issue, and national pay agreements decided under the Wilson government actually dealt with this in the worst way. The new agreement asked mineworkers in Nottinghamshire to take de facto pay cuts until other workers caught up. Meanwhile, incentive pay schemes for high productivity which were opposed by most miners due to the inherent unevenness of seam productivity, were endorsed and implemented by the Nottingham area miners union, because they would benefit the most from it.
That, combined with large-scale rationalisations and job losses under Labour, and the ruinous effects of the social contract, had already begun to decompose rank-and-file solidarity. Many of the older miners were cynical when Scargill began raising the alarm about Thatcher's intentions for the industry, having seen what Labour was capable of. Many of them just wanted to take redundancy, rather than fight for an industry that they believed was doomed whoever was in office. And many in the local executive were well to the right of Scargill, and had resented being pulled into a strike action.
The result was, of course, ultimately Mansfield's tragedy, while many of the leaders of that scab union are disgraced.
Notwithstanding the bruising industrial defeats, by the late 1990s, Labour's vote was back at historically high levels. Blairism seemed, at this stage, to represent a recovery. And Mansfield was not a stronghold for left-wing opposition at any rate. The local NUM was active in the few surviving pits, and offered some opposition to New Labour ideology. The MP, though he had once been affiliated to the Socialist Campaign Group, was by this point on the left-wing of New Labour. Thus, while some Labour heartlands saw left-wing oppositions or splits arise in the period of New Labour in office, Mansfield wasn't among them. Notably, Mansfield wasn't one of the former mining areas where Scargill's Socialist Labour Party challenged the incumbent.
To the contrary, dissatisfaction with New Labour, given the decomposition of Labour's class base, tended to redound to the benefit of the petty bourgeois 'independents' and the far right. The 'localist' Mansfield Independent Forum, a small business-led organisation, successfully captured the post of the first directly elected mayor, has dominated the Mansfield District Council, and polled 17% of the constituency vote at its peak in 2005. The racist right first made small gains, with Veritas getting just over a thousand votes in 2005. By 2010, the combined vote for the BNP and Ukip was 5,000, around 11%. In the same year, the Tories added five thousand votes to their total. In practical terms, there's a strong overlap between the independents and the Ukippers. The number of Labour votes fell from over 30,500 to just over 18,700, and it must be said that most of the lost votes didn't go to the independents or the far right: they went to abstention.
The Liberals also retained a strong local 'protest' vote. In many ex-industrial northern towns, ruled by Labour for generations, Liberals were able to play both ends, capitalising on Tory voters' hatred for Labour with their "winning here" tactic, while playing up centre-left credentials to win over former Labour voters. That isn't quite what happened in Mansfield. Although the Liberals did improve their vote, the political character of their anti-political or anti-cumbency appeal would have skewed right owing to their historic opposition to the Left and to Scargill. By 2015, however, their ability to occupy any 'protest' space was decimated, and so they ceased playing that role in Mansfield.
If it was clear that Labour didn't know how to regain its lost voters, it is not necessarily obvious that Ukip should be the major short-term beneficiary of this process. Yet the record shows that it did not even have to do a lot of work on the ground. Pulling togethers votes from independents, the BNP, Liberals and some defecting Labour supporters, Ukip surged to a quarter of the vote in 2015, having been a very limited presence beforehand.
However, Ukip had a number of factors playing for it. First, it benefited from the collapse of the BNP. Second, it benefited from a major push in the national media. Third, it articulated in a far more concentrated from than any other party dared, the nationalist lamentation of decline, according to which a conspiracy of cosmopolitan elites and the wretched of the earth has sent 'our taxes' overseas and let foreigners in to take 'our jobs'.
The evidence is that those most susceptible to this story have been older, less educated voters, a coalition of skilled workers and the petty bourgeoisie, experiencing declining class trajectory and/or were stuck in regional dynamics of (old economy) decline. Not participants in the transformation of social values being wrought by the expansion of higher education and new technologies, they were also not participants in the 'boom'. But they do have houses and mortgages, and that means they have a very small, precarious share in property to defend -- their one asset in a savage neoliberal competitive order.
Ukip thus benefited from a legacy of class injury, regional resentment, neoliberal insecurity and the deliberate cultivation by the mainstream parties of national chauvinism, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant racism. In particular, New Labour had not only overseen the decline in wages, working conditions and trade unions in its heartlands, but it had also crafted the ideological weapons with which the populist Right could come and hack at its emaciated class base.
The Brexit vote simply crystallised these tendencies, allowing a 'red-white-and-blue Brexit' boosting Conservative Party to sweep up the vast majority of the local right-wing vote, including the historical residues of 'moderate' mining town Liberalism.
In all likelihood, Momentum can reverse the Tory win. In the excitement of 2017, Bradley just about squeezed through. But reversing the disintegration of Labourism and the local rise of the Tories into a serious competitor, is a far longer game. And it involves, not reanimating old class battles, but building new class capacities.