BIRMINGHAM, England — Birmingham Northfield, a modest residential area on the southwest border of England’s second-largest city, has backed the Labour candidate for Parliament the last 25 years. But in conversations along its main shopping street, a mixture of discount stores like Pound Store Plus and a Women’s Aid shop, it is not hard to detect the guilty temptation of voting Conservative as the June 8 election approaches — and the main problem bedeviling Labour.
“I’ve always been Labour, but people have lost trust in the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and I don’t know if he’s got the personality and strength to be a leader,” Dipak Desai, a teacher, said, echoing the sentiments of many others.
Districts like Northfield will help define not just the outcome of this strange British election, but the future of the Labour Party and its hard-left direction under Mr. Corbyn.
At the start of this snap election campaign, there were widespread predictions of a Conservative landslide behind Prime Minister Theresa May, and a correspondingly historic defeat for a Labour Party already split by deep, ideological divisions.Continue reading the main story
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But Mrs. May has run a rough, uncertain campaign, while Mr. Corbyn, beginning with low expectations, has had a good one. Although some Labour moderates privately hoped that a cataclysmic defeat would sweep him away, now it looks as if the party will do well enough to maintain its uneasy status quo, and Mr. Corbyn and his proto-Marxist program will survive.
For Corbynistas, as his staunch supporters are known, a vaguely successful, better-than-expected outcome is fine enough. But for Labour’s less ideological, more politically ambitious lawmakers, it would be nothing short of disaster, leaving them “to the thought of a decade out of power, of a whole career at Westminster without power,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.
“You would normally think that Labour, like the Tories, would want to win the next election,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics. “But Labour under its current leadership doesn’t see that as the overwhelming purpose. Rather, it is to keep the machine in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn or someone like him.”
Labour is suffering from a deep division between well-educated, globalized urbanites like Mr. Corbyn and its traditional white working-class constituents. Those voters supported Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, known as “Brexit,” and could be tempted for the first time in generations to support a Tory on Thursday.
On a tactical level, there is also a split between a leadership that wants to build a left-wing social movement and those, including most of its elected legislators, who want to move to the center to try to win an election.
All these political stresses and strains are on display in Northfield. The area is about 86 percent white and mixed between urban and suburban. A third of its population lives in what are classified as “deprived” neighborhoods, and a third of its children live in poverty.
About 9 percent of the population is between 18 and 24, a group that tends to support Labour but typically has a low voter turnout. But about 15 percent are 65 or older, a population that votes in higher numbers and tends to favor the Tories.
The representative for Northfield, Richard Burden, who is no fan of Mr. Corbyn’s, won the seat in 1992 with a margin of just 630 votes. He beat back a major Conservative push in the last general election, just two years ago.
His main opposition is the Conservative candidate, Meg Powell-Chandler, a former adviser to former Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Tories smell victory. Last year, 62 percent of the district’s voters in the Brexit referendum chose to leave, including large numbers of Labour voters.
On paper, Northfield seems ripe for Conservative plucking. In 2015, Mr. Burden won with an advantage of only 2,509 votes over the Conservatives, while the candidate of the nationalist, anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party got 7,106 votes.
In this election, UKIP is not running a candidate, Mrs. May is promising Brexit and most UKIP voters do not identify politically or culturally with Mr. Corbyn.
But Mrs. May has proved to be an inept retail politician, establishing little emotional rapport with voters and being mocked as “weak and wobbly” instead of the “strong and stable” image she has sought to project.
According to a variety of polls, Mr. Corbyn is attracting growing support by promoting a set of left-wing policies that promise more state money for nearly every social problem, from health to education. The policies include offering free tuition and renationalizing the railroads and water systems, while taxing corporations and the comparatively wealthy.
Mr. Burden is sounding a bit more confident. He is emphasizing local issues on the doorstep, he said, and “the importance of having a strong local voice to speak for the area, whoever is in Downing Street.”
He added that “people are understanding that Theresa May is not so strong and stable, and her policies on education and social care have caused outrage among some traditional Tory voters, and people are hearing what Jeremy Corbyn is saying, not just what people say about him.”
If the current polls that show Labour gaining hold up — which, in recent years, has not been a sure thing — Mr. Corbyn may well avoid the sort of electoral disaster that befell his predecessor, Ed Miliband, who resigned immediately after the resounding Labour defeat in 2015. That should be enough to keep him — and his policies — ruling Labour.
“There will be an attempt to keep Corbyn on board as leader,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “Even more widely, there will be an attempt to keep the program he’s associated with.”
Labour is likely to lose, Mr. Fielding said. “But it all depends on how bad it is, and I don’t think it will be bad enough,” he continued. “There will be too many loopholes, so people can say, ‘O.K., Jeremy wasn’t popular, but the policies are fine.’”
Part of Mr. Corbyn’s recovery in the polls comes from people who are opposed to “the system” and from younger voters. But many younger voters, like Catherine Pritchard, 22, do not vote, considering it “too confusing,” as she said, or useless. “They all lie,” she said of politicians.
Mr. Corbyn is doing a good job of holding on to voters who dislike him but like the Labour Party, and who are having doubts about Mrs. May. But that does nothing to resolve the underlying issues eroding the party, Mr. Bale said.
“Labour’s working class base is crumbling underneath it,” he said. “It’s shrinking anyway as the economy becomes more services and more middle class. And even in that shrinking part, views on immigration, law and order and education values are very different” from its better educated urbanite supporters.
There is “a deep structural problem for social democrats,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent. The left, he said, “is now a movement that relies on a coalition of voters who think very differently about new identity issues of immigration, ethnic change and Europe.”
Professor Goodwin cited “a new urban middle class, broadly liberal and at ease with globalization and Europe and low-skilled service and manual workers anxious about ethnic change, opposed to transnational identities and with a premium on the nation state.”
The problem for Labour, he said, is that “these groups are essentially incompatible and their views can’t be reconciled.”
“Can Labour cobble these two groups together and find a more coherent agenda that allows them to win elections?” Professor Goodwin asked. “So far, they’re not pushing themselves out of their comfort zone.”
But in Northfield, for now, Brexit and Mr. Corbyn are much on people’s minds, which favors the Conservatives.
“When I was growing up, Birmingham was Labour,” said Gail Williams, 50. “But it’s shifting to the Tories.”
Ms. Williams, who voted for Brexit, said that though Mrs. May wasn’t perfect, “she’s taking the country in the right way, and I think she’ll take us to the Brexit we voted for.”
“I’ve been Labour all my life,” she said. “But I don’t like where it’s going, and I don’t trust Jeremy Corbyn to lead the country.”