There’s an amazing scene, most of the way Sebastian Paynean entertaining political travel story in which the author finds himself in the Burnley Premier Inn with an interview with Ed Miliband about a Zoom connection of the former Labor leader’s home in North London. Could there be a better visual metaphor for the broken heart of the Labor Party as part of the North London intelligence that remotely instructed the north of England where everything went wrong?
Broken heartland is the search for the source of Labor’s decline in the Midlands and the north of England, once bastions of the opposition party. Payne, the editor of the Financial Times, Whitehall, draws a track like a hockey stick from the Blyth Valley in the north-east of England, in South Yorkshire and down to Coventry, then some distance back to the north-west. This must have been a difficult book during the coronavirus pandemic. The usual hustle and bustle of provincial life was largely confined to much of the time of Payne’s travels. If it’s more of a book bound on a desk than it was possible, it should be taken into account.
Yet the parade of interrogators sometimes took to the air from one of those literary festivals where people in the countryside gather to discuss books and discover that they all got off the same train from London that morning. Some of the most important interrogators in the book are visitors to the provinces, or politicians on a return visit, from the capital. An audience with the prime minister or leader of the opposition is always attractive to a political journalist. Yet, as many veterans know of such encounters, they either yield less than expected or can go out quickly.
The interview with Angela Rayner dramatically addresses the issue. The deputy leader of the Labor Party is given reasonable space to say nothing specifically. Indeed, if Rayner knew the answer to Labor’s problems, this voyage of discovery would not be necessary, for Broken heartland was quietly informed that she no longer had much to say to former Labor voters.
The best parts of the book are when Payne is on the road. As a man of Gateshead he knows the people among whom he wanders. Payne shared a few pints with Gateshead legend, cafe owner and guitarist Frank Tatoli, the man who took over Dominic’s Café after an apprenticeship ran into the ground, and an old school friend, Bruce. The drinking party discusses how, as Bruce puts it, “there was a much more real fear of Corbyn” and it all reads, of course, like four friends talking in the bar.
The travel report form can quickly fall into anthropology in the wrong hands – well, have you seen what these people are doing? – but Payne is a guide without snobbery. He is indeed excited to pot through the country in a Mini and stay in a ‘cozy’ Premier Inn. The book benefits greatly from the fact that the pleasant narrator did not come up from London to tell people what to do. He’s here to find out what they think.
And what they think is that they liked Brexit and Boris Johnson and that they really could not see Jeremy Corbyn. The Labor Party was once rooted in the industrial sectors of the post-war economy. That work has now gone; the axis of politics has shifted. Where occupational status used to be a reliable guide to affiliation, in 2019 voters were divided over the view of the country in which they lived.
Payne repeatedly reports on the view that the British people, on Brexit and defense, viewed the Labor Party as operating from another planet, somewhere on the other side of a computer screen in north London.
The new north: how Labor has lost its grip on the ‘red wall’
Post-industrial England turns blue and there is much more after the shift as Brexit
Payne, however, is a sharp guide to this change because he gives you some complexity. As one of the people professionally required to read all the documentary evidence, I can testify that he did his homework. But he also sees that private housing looks well-maintained in the north-east of Derbyshire and that new industries are flourishing in the north-west of Durham. In all the towns that Payne visits, there are prosperity enclaves. Many people who vote Tory do pretty well for themselves.
The very best version of this book would have been that JB Priestley did politics. Broken heartland is more a case of politics playing JB Priestley, but there are many insights. The thesis of the book is supported by the fact that the best moments are when people, rather than the politicians or the experts, speak.
Broken heartland: A Journey Through Labor’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne, Macmillan £ 20, 432 pages
Philip Collins is a contributing editor to the New Statesman and a columnist on the Evening Standard
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