Cllr Dr. Simon Peaple explains where he thinks Labour is going wrong in Tamworth.
Cllr Dr. Simon Peaple leads a small but committed band of Labour councillors on Tamworth Borough Council. This market town in Staffordshire has been in Conservative hands since 2004, when the wheels were beginning to fall off the New Labour machine. Like many borough councils that changed hands that year, Tamworth has not once looked likely to return to Labour.
Cllr Peaple, who has been in the Labour Party since he was a student several moons ago, says: “We only do well when we unite our broad party.” Peaple believes that the English Labour Network (ELN) is itself a symbol of unity in the party because its contributors are drawn from both the left and the right of the movement.
Beyond the metropolitan centres
Along with other interviewees in this series, Cllr Peaple focuses on what he terms “the need to broaden the Party’s appeal outside the metropolitan centres.” To do this “Labour needs to be seen to grasp Englishness and the sense of feeling in England outside the metropolitan areas. There is a real difficulty for Labour in that under Blair and Miliband, the metro-elite fell into the view that the traditional base of the party was not sophisticated enough to comprehend the changes in society and that as long as they could appeal to the ‘middle’ they could ignore the million who stopped voting in 1997.”
This is not a mere academic problem, says Peaple. It has real-world effects for Labour and its natural supporters. Peaple argues that the more recent loss of middle class support “exposed the dangers of a disengaged working class prone to believe that the ‘elite were all the same’. (Labour’s) complacency was brutally exposed in the EU referendum.”
Working class identity and patriotic pride
Peaple’s explicit class analysis reflects the feelings of many in Labour that it is unsustainable for a party of labour to be adrift from its core working class support. He says that in Tamworth the white working class are feeling particularly left out and often “influenced by the Sun and the Daily Mail”. Despite over 97% of the population describing themselves as ‘White British’, the biggest issue identified at the 2010 and 2015 elections was immigration and in 2016 67.5% voted to leave the EU.
Peaple sees Labour as out of step with the “popular sense of Englishness” he sees in Tamworth through “the large number of St George’s flags seen during major [sporting] competitions, the pride taken in local service personnel, and attendance at Remembrance Sunday.”
“Uniformed cadet groups recruit well in Tamworth,” he says, while “the Tories have popularised St George’s day with events in the Castle Grounds.”
A decade of decline for Labour
This disconnect with ‘the establishment’ is a big issue in Tamworth, says Peaple, with the recent implementation of Universal Credit just one example showing that the issue goes beyond the Labour Party and its voters.
That said, Labour has rather shot itself in the foot. “The Party’s decision to abandon the 10p tax rate [under Gordon Brown] hit voters here, and [this was followed by] the Liberal Democrat-inspired coalition policy of raising tax thresholds [which] improved take-home pay for many in a town where the average income is only £22,000,” says Peaple. “Then, because Labour was refusing to credit the Lib Dems with this change, voters in Tamworth simply attributed it to the Tories! This helped Labour to gain metropolitan seats at the Lib Dems’ expense but helped us lose Tamworth.”
Whether Cllr Peaple can achieve the unlikely feat of leading Labour back to power in Tamworth for the first time in over a decade is an open question. But if he does, then it will be thanks to his and his colleagues’ understanding that Labour’s disconnect with “the English” is about far more than national identity. It is about a political establishment that seems permanently removed from the real lived experiences of the average English voter.
Read more of Cllr Sam Stopp’s interviews with influential Labour figures here.