13 November 2019

How can the Tories scale Labour’s Red Wall?


There are two prevailing views of UK politics in 2019. One holds that politics is broken – just look at the scenes in the Commons as the last parliament neared its end. MPs sobbing for the benefit of the cameras, holding up signs as if they were hostages in a plane bound for Cuba, applauding, for God’s sake!

This view is held by people who, with a degree of justification, look around at the debris left over from three years of angst and anger over Brexit, and conclude that something has to change. Perhaps it’s the electoral system (usually Target Number 1 in the eyes of the reformers), maybe it’s the tribalist attitudes of one or both of the main parties. But a big shift is coming, just you wait and see…

The other view is that all this silliness is but a passing fad, the unpleasant consequences of a political war of words over Brexit and that, once a withdrawal agreement has been duly passed and long-term trade talks embarked upon, everything will return to what I believe our grandparents used to call “normal”.

One of the aspects of modern democracy that prevents that “normal” happening right now goes beyond Brexit, and it is the polarisation of our two main parties. It was always a desire of some to offer the electorate a “real choice” between full-blooded socialism and free-market, Thatcherite Conservatism. Not for them the post-war economic consensus that earned the name of Butskellism, a label derived from the names of the Tory Chancellor, Rab Butler, and Labour Shadow Chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell.

The assumption in those days was that a large swathe of floating voters would swing between Labour and the Tories from one election to the next, basically deciding who governs. The notion of switching parties between the two was normal and familiar, made all the easier by the occupation of both main parties of the centre ground.

It was when the parties chose to diverge from that centre ground that voters started to feel more tribal and to entertain the idea of switching parties not as expressing a consumer choice but as treason.

That is the challenge facing Conservative candidates all along the so-called red wall, those key battleground seats in the north and midlands that hold the key to this general election. On paper, gaining a seat where Labour secured a majority of four or five thousand in 2017 should pose no real problem for a party as far ahead in the national polls as Boris Johnson’s Conservatives find themselves. But to a very large portion of the population, loyalty to one party or the other is a life-defining virtue. Asking a certain type of Labour voter to switch to the Tories can be like asking a Rangers fan to wear a Celtic top on an Old Firm match day.

That Jeremy Corbyn is Labour’s leader is a sign that all those who wanted a “real choice” between socialism and capitalism have got their wish (although I still maintain that depicting Boris Johnson as Corbyn’s right wing mirror image is fanciful, to say the least). It also means that, other factors notwithstanding, the invitation to a Labour voter to switch sides is as hard as it has ever been.

Of course, two factors could ride to Johnson’s rescue here: Brexit and Corbyn himself. Tribal loyalty to both main parties has been severely weakened thanks to the ongoing Brexit row, and traditional Labour voters who still value patriotism and strong defence are casting a dubious eye in Corbyn’s direction.

The problem for the Conservatives in their attempts to win that crucial majority that eluded Theresa May and which Johnson simply can’t afford not to achieve, is that in all the Labour target seats where he must make gains, the Brexit Party is still standing candidates. However helpful Nigel Farage’s announcement of his giving all 317 Tory seats a wide berth was, his candidates will still be presenting themselves as a more palatable option to former Labour voters than the Conservative candidate.

Even those unhappy with Jeremy Corbyn’s political baggage and his party’s problematic policy on Brexit will find it difficult to make that leap from Labour to Conservative. Not impossible, but difficult. How much easier to use the Brexit Party as a half-way house?

Which is why, in the event of Farage not going one step further and offering to pull his candidates from Labour marginals too, the Conservatives need to super-charge Farage’s own words. Yes, there is a Brexit Party candidate in this seat (Johnson’s candidates might tell voters on the doorstep) but Nigel himself has already admitted that the best chance of getting Brexit through is to make sure the Conservatives have a majority. And that’s not going to happen without this particular seat.

It’s a strategy that will be tried, in one form or another, and in some seats it will work. Whether it will be enough to take Johnson over that 326-seat winning line is another matter.

There is another factor, however, working in the Conservatives’ favour: their leader. Mr Johnson is not to everyone’s taste, to be sure. But the London-centric media’s view of him as an extremist and racist is based more on wishful thinking than on reality.

There is a very real chance that this contest will come down to who the voters like more (or dislike least). And the Labour leader starts out that contest at a definite disadvantage: he’s been around longer than Johnson and he’s already lost one general election. The polls suggest that voters have already made their minds up about him and they don’t look as if they’re going to change them back. Glastonbury seems an awful long time ago, doesn’t it?

Maybe the kaleidoscope has indeed been shaken, the mould shattered and our politics is in need of radical reinvention rather than repair.

But if a return to “normal” is required, that can only be achieved by a majority Tory government, headed by a (relatively) popular politician with the political clout to dispense with Brexit. And if former Labour voters need convincing that Johnson can deliver, just remind them that that’s what Nigel said.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'