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British working-class towns desert Labour Party

GRIMSBY, England (AP) — Like the North Sea cod that was their livelihood, Conservative voters in the fishing town of Grimsby once seemed in danger of disappearing.

In every election since 1945, voters in this port in eastern England elected a Labour Party lawmaker. Until this week.

Grimsby, 200 miles north of London, is one of a swath of seats stretching across central and northern England — dubbed the “red wall” after the color traditionally associated with Labour — that turned Conservative blue as Prime Minister Boris Johnson swept to electoral victory on a wave of Brexit frustration.

It’s a result many here never thought they would see and that was made in towns like this one — working class communities whose traditional industries have withered, and where many feel neglected by remote London-based governments.

“I think it’s just a time of general discontent,” said Stephen Wakefield, who works for the local council. “It is a real time of flux. People are willing to look at what is most affecting them and actually go against a lifetime’s habit.”

Johnson’s Conservatives won 365 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons in Thursday’s election. Labour took 203, its worst total since 1935.

The result was an extraordinary turnaround in a town where most people had refused to vote Conservative since Prime Minister Thatcher presided over the dismantling of the U.K.’s industrial base in the 1980s.

Kelly Brown, who once filleted fish at Grimsby dock, said she ended up on welfare after “Conservatives sold the fishing industry off,” and the fish factory closed.

“I voted Labour back then – Conservatives got in and they trashed the country,” she said. “(Thatcher) destroyed the fishing industry, steel industry, the coal industry, you name it, it all went downhill from there. But now, I’m hoping Conservatives look back on their mistakes and I’m hoping they’re going to bring some things back.”

Loyalty to Labour has been declining in Grimsby and other working-class towns for years. Fewer people these days belong to the trade unions on which the party was built. Under “New Labour” Prime Minister Tony Blair, who governed from 1997 to 2007, the party moved towards the center, gaining support among middle-class professionals while neglecting its working-class base.

In 2016, Grimsby and other “left-behind” towns voted to leave the European Union, and this week they rallied behind Johnson’s vow to end years of wrangling over the departure terms and “get Brexit done.”

Many Labour politicians pinned blame for the trouncing on Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran socialist who has led the party since 2015.

Under Corbyn, the party campaigned on a radical domestic agenda, promising to nationalize key industries and utilities, hike the minimum wage and give free internet access to all.

But Labour struggled to persuade voters that its lavish spending promises were deliverable. And its position on Brexit — a new divorce deal with the bloc followed by a second referendum — lacked the simplicity of Johnson’s bullish promise to “Get Brexit done.”

Former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson called Corbyn “a disaster on the doorstep. Everyone knew that he couldn’t lead the working class out of a paper bag.”

Corbyn — a long-time champion of the Palestinians — has also been dogged by allegations that he has allowed anti-Jewish prejudice to fester in the party.

As the scale of Labour’s drubbing became clear Friday, Corbyn blamed the media, accusing it of misrepresenting him.
“When you analyse the coverage that was made of the Labour party, analyse the coverage of me, over 80% of it was negative, hostile or frankly downright abuse of individuals, character assassinations, attacks on me, my family and others,” he said.

But many Labour members said the leader — and his “Corbynista” ideology — were responsible.

“This party must listen, this party must respond, or this party will die,” said Ian Murray, a Labour legislator who won re-election in Scotland.

“For the sake of the labor movement, for the sake of the Labour Party, but more importantly for the sake of the country, not only does the person have to go but the policy and the ideology has to go as well,” he said.

Corbyn called the election result “very disappointing” and said he would step down — but not yet. He said he would stay on during a “period of reflection” and that an internal election to choose a new leader would take place early next year.

That was not good enough for some.

“Corbyn talking about a period of ‘reflection,'” tweeted re-elected Labour lawmaker Margaret Hodge. “I’ve reflected. You’ve failed. Please stand down.”

Lawless reported from London. Gregory Katz in London contributed to this story.