A Crack in Labour’s Hull | Christopher Winter
Recommended electoral boundary changes are in the process of being finalised, and one region which sticks out like a sore thumb is, of course, Kingston Upon Hull. Known for its bridge; its strong links to Britain’s maritime tradition; the Deep aquarium; chip shop patties; and for having the smallest window in England, Hull shot back to relevance during 2017 when it became the UK’s ‘City of Culture’. This came as a massive boost to the city, as millions of pounds of investment flowed into the area for the first time in decades.
As someone born and raised in and around Hull, I was genuinely surprised to see that the city’s council did not waste this money and actually put it to good use… new infrastructure; long overdue road repair; and the repaving and modernisation of the city centre. It was truly a proud moment for me and many others in the area, and I certainly noticed the tangible benefit this had on the town.
For politicos and pundits, however, Hull has always been the subject of ridicule due to one outstanding factor – its three parliamentary constituencies (Hull East, Hull West, and Hull North) consistently have the lowest voter turnout in the country. This level of voter apathy and disinterest is exemplified most by Hull East which, at the last general election, had a turnout of 49.3%. For context, this turnout is lower than that of Chorley, the constituency of the speaker of the house where your vote doesn’t even really matter. This trend of low turnout is increasingly common in many northern city constituencies. These constituencies have been predominantly controlled by Labour since the 1930’s.
As these cities become more and more depopulated by young people heading south for better work opportunities, and elderly people heading for the countryside for retirement, many city constituencies are dangerously close to falling below the minimum requirement for being their own parliamentary constituency. With the finalisation of the electoral boundary reforms, constituencies which have become too small in population will be merged together with other areas to make up the numbers. In Hull’s case, this means two out of three of its constituencies are to be merged with the traditionally Conservative and very high-turnout towns and villages of the East Riding of Yorkshire which border the city. All polling now suggests that these two constituencies will become Tory seats.
These may all sound like irrelevant little settlements to those not from the area, but the impact this will have on the city will be massive. Two thirds of the city will now be represented and controlled by a party which hasn’t seen electoral success in the area since 1935. It is clear to see that the city of Hull is being drained of its working-age youth. A whole generation of Labour’s core voter demographic have simply had enough with an area that appears to have very little future for them. They desperately flee the area as soon as they have graduated university or even Sixth Form and head for Leeds, Birmingham, or London. The city has been so ruthlessly depopulated that, by the 2001 census, it had slumped to a population of just 243,000. This is a sixth smaller than its peak in 1931 at 300,000. Most of this loss has come from young working age men and women who are seeking better opportunities elsewhere. Simply put, Hull is bleeding red.
It is hard to assess the impact that this will have on the north of England as a whole. Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ constituencies were battered in the last general election, and it seems as though their lack of ability to keep these cities populated by young workers will be their complete downfall. I find it curious that no one in Labour seems to be seriously talking about the effects of age-related demographic change in the North. As the average age of these areas continues to go up and up with more young people leaving, it is entirely within reason to assume that more and more of these cities and towns will be swallowed up whole by the Tories.
The flip from red to blue for smaller towns like Grimsby, Workington, and Hartlepool in the 2019 general election (and by-election) should have been a warning sign for Labour, but the predicted loss of control of Hull due to a necessary boundary change is a complete sea change. This is a very historic moment, as it is the first time in recent memory that a major city in the north of England will be completely transformed from a Labour stronghold to a Conservative one by the effects of depopulation. This is also the first time I can think of where the vote of smaller towns and villages will come to completely dominate the polity of the city they surround. This is the beginning of a dangerous new precedent for Labour’s remaining outposts in the north in which depopulation is the new norm.
I believe that it is entirely possible that Kingston upon Hull will be the bellwether of Labour’s future in the north. The depopulation pattern is not going away any time soon, and many other constituencies for small northern cities and towns are already experiencing increasingly lower voter turnouts. Come the next boundary change, we may well see a plethora of little mergers and changes which will have huge effects on the landscapes of urban and rural politics in the north. This process of ‘Hull-ification’ has once again shown that age-related demographics and the movement of people within their own country have a significant part to play in the destiny of both Labour and the Conservatives – especially in the north of England.
It is quite ironic, of course, that this petard was hoisted by labour themselves. Labour has spent the last decade focussing almost entirely on building up a base within the young. At the same time, they have been responsible for the slow decline of traditional labour voting northern towns and cities caused by decades of mismanagement by out of touch or uninterested Labour MPs and Councillors. This has made these places almost inhospitable to young people, who now struggle to find long-term well-paying careers and suitable housing in these areas. It is no surprise, therefore, that when these young people flee these towns and cities for more prosperous areas in the Midlands and the South, the Labour vote (and population overall) completely collapses.
I love the place where I am from, and yet even I may even be forced to move to find better work and better pay elsewhere. This city holds a special place in my heart, but right now it’s only redeeming feature seems to be the low house prices. If even I am considering leaving, how on earth does the city intend to regrow its population? If the Labour party intends to keep Hull and many other northern cities, it needs to actively make the case and prove to young people that these areas are worth staying in. It needs to stop putting all of its eggs in the London basket, and it needs to give the people here something to hope and aspire for. Otherwise, these towns and cities will become more bricks in the Tories northern blue wall.