2 December 2020

The Red Wall was once a shade of orange


It’s now a year since the 2019 General Election – and while the pandemic has changed much of our lives beyond recognition, it has also left a feeling of stasis. It’s as if the political world never truly had a chance to pause and react to the extraordinary tumult of last year. The smashing of the Red Wall, sounding like an event out of Game of Thrones, has maintained an almost mythical quality. A friend and proud member of the liberal metropolitan elite texted me on election night as the first Labour seat flipped blue: “Blyth Valley?! Where the hell is that? Sounds made up.”

For many, the disbelief still reigns. Was it Brexit? Was it Corbyn? If people feel ‘left behind’, what does that even mean? Similar questions were asked by onlookers aghast at Donald Trump’s victory in 2016: just as working class voters of the upper Midwest abandoned their traditional loyalties to back a New York showman, here we saw northern former manufacturing towns back a party led by an Etonian journalist, fond of throwaway Latin, for the first time since the Great Depression.

Among the best literature published around the time of Donald Trump’s election have been ‘ethnographic studies’ – an immersive qualitative research technique looking at trends in societies and cultures, whose very name conjures up images of liberal academics donning pith helmets to go off into the jungle in search of undiscovered tribes. These include Kathy Cramer’s excellent Politics of Resentment, focused on rural consciousness in Wisconsin, and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, looking at how deprived communities in Louisiana came to embrace Tea Party small-government attitudes.

This summer saw the publication of the first such book on our own electoral realignment: Beyond The Red Wall by veteran Labour pollster and researcher Deborah Mattinson offers a frank window into the attitudes of the new Conservative electorate, with particular focus on Accrington, Darlington and Stoke-on-Trent. As with the work of US counterparts, the style – largely based on interviews and focus groups – conveys huge warmth for individuals’ lives and struggles. And as is the case with Cramer’s description of the rural north of Wisconsin, you are left with the overwhelming sense that these communities have been ignored by absentee decision-makers in big cities further south, who are indifferent to their long-term decline.

Labour, in the minds of many Red Wall voters, are presented as ‘we know better’ elitists, who have let institutions in their town crumble. In Darlington, Mattinson interviewed a lady called Yvonne, who had been involved in a campaign to save the town’s historic library, threatened with closure by the then-Labour council. Rather than blaming austerity for the cuts councils have made across the country, she credited local Conservatives for leaping on the campaign and helping to secure a u-turn and long-term funding. In countless Red Wall seats, Conservative MPs and candidates have been able to seize on examples of local decline, especially where Labour still runs the council, to make political headway.

Such local activism, fighting for the community-minded little guy against out-of-touch decision makers, is far from revolutionary – and certainly nothing new when it comes to challenging Labour hegemony in the North. What is novel is that it’s now the Conservative Party leading this challenge. Another party, now so seemingly irrelevant in Red Wall that it goes totally unmentioned in Mattinson’s book, made such campaigning their raison d’etre: the Liberal Democrats.

‘Community politics’ was pioneered by young Liberal activists in Liverpool in the late 1970s and was seen as crucial in wresting control of the city’s council and David Alton’s Edge Hill constituency from Labour. By 1980, the practice had become official party policy, along with the assertion that it was not a technique to win elections, but to transform communities into ones that put local residents in the driving seat. The great advantage of this approach was its universality – applicable to any location, appealing to voters both left and right, papering over deeper political differences and asserting only that ‘authority’ wasn’t listening and local people should be in charge. It helped the party break out of the ‘Celtic fringes’ to win councils and MPs in a whole host of different communities where people felt ignored.

A history of Liberal and later Liberal Democrat community politics can be seen across the Red Wall. In the 1980s, far from being a safe Labour seat, Blyth was hotly contested by the Liberal-SDP Alliance, who managed to cut the Labour majority to just 853 in 1987. In Bishop Auckland, the Liberal Democrats managed to take control of the local council – then Wear Valley – with the late Victoria Wood’s brother becoming council leader. In the 2000s, the party broke through in Ashfield, cutting Gloria De Piero’s majority to 192 in 2010. That same election, the Liberal Democrats took Redcar, following the closure of the Corus steel plant, as well as Burnley – each on the basis that Labour had taken the towns for granted for too long. In both cases, the seats returned to Labour in 2015, only to be won by the Conservatives for the first time in generations in 2019.

Focus on community politics in seats – whether in Cornwall or the North East – that often felt left behind by London created a counterintuitive situation where the party represented a large number of socially conservative, Brexit-supporting English seats. Indeed, of the 44 English seats the Lib Dems won in 2010, 26 voted Leave in the 2016 referendum – perhaps the ultimate form of ‘leave us alone’ localism.

The Coalition years and Brexit meant the party now had a national identity, and one decidedly more metropolitan than its former voters in the Red Wall: in the 54 seats the Conservatives gained from Labour in 2019, the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed from an average of 19% to 5% today.

In some Red Wall constituencies, localists have even broken away from the Liberal Democrats to separate themselves from a brand now toxic in many Leave-voting communities. Ashfield’s 2010 Liberal Democrat candidate now leads the local council as the head of ‘Ashfield Independents’ and again came second to Conservative MP Lee Anderson in 2019, on a pro-Brexit community politics ticket. In Burnley, a group of councillors also quit over Brexit, winning re-election as the ‘Burnley and Padiham Independent Party’.

For the most part, however, Liberal Democrat collapse has left the Conservatives – at least in parliamentary elections – as the lone anti-Labour force in constituencies that have actually been voicing dissatisfaction with the party for some decades. While Brexit created a wedge issue for many left-leaning social conservatives who had never voted Tory before, showing the party cared about community issues was also crucial: protection of local NHS services, revitalising the High Street (continuously mentioned by Mattinson’s interviewees) and bringing back local jobs (a case inherently linked to immigration in voters’ eyes).

Many new MPs get a ‘first term bounce’, as the personal vote of the MP they unseated dissipates and their personal record comes into view. Labour and the Liberal Democrats found this is 2001, as did many Conservatives in 2015. If Red Wall Conservatives can keep the anti-Labour vote united through assiduous community politics, focused on making voters feel heard, they could be extremely hard for Labour to dislodge. Former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron once declared the Liberal Democrats were like cockroaches (hard to get rid of) – perhaps they’re not the only ones.

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Mark Gettleson is a campaigns and election strategist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.