Since Labour’s disorienting election defeat nine months ago, one political concept has dominated the discussion about how the party might find its way back to power. The “red wall”, a term coined by a Conservative pollster, James Kanagasooriam, a few months before the election, has been identified as the part of Britain central to Labour’s problems and prospects. Fail to recapture it from the Tories, the argument goes, and face being in opposition for ever.
It’s quite a significance to place on an uneven, broken line of constituencies across north Wales, the Midlands and northern England. Precise definitions of the red wall vary, and it includes seats still held by Labour. But the three dozen that fell here to the Tories last year add up to about 6% of Britain’s MPs. Even when the red wall was a Labour stronghold, more Labour MPs represented other places.
But now that much of the red wall has switched sides, its voters have effectively become swing voters – the category most privileged by our electoral system. Like the southern skilled working class wooed by Margaret Thatcher, and the suburban Middle England prized by Tony Blair, the red wall has become a fascination for political scientists and party strategists.
Books have begun to appear about its changing demographics and priorities, such as The Fall of the Red Wall by Steve Rayson, and Beyond The Red Wall by Deborah Mattinson. If you’re on the left, they make difficult reading.
Mattinson has long conducted voter research for Labour. Her interviewees, all former Labour voters who chose the Tories in 2019, often admire Donald Trump, sometimes wish Britain still had an empire, and believe that Boris Johnson and Brexit will “make Britain great again”. They hate “scroungers”, political correctness and urban liberals, especially if they’re from London.
Over recent decades, Rayson concludes, the red wall has become increasingly “similar to many Conservative seats in the south … culturally conservative, older, and disproportionately white … Rather than looking at why [these] voters left Labour in 2019, one could ask, ‘Why did these voters stick with Labour for so long?’”
Both authors rightly see longterm economic decline and a sense that central government is remote and unsympathetic as big contributors to this political mood. But few of the interviewees blame these problems on the Conservatives, despite the immense damage done to the red wall’s former industrial towns and mining villages by Thatcherism and then austerity. Instead, they rage against Labour: as somehow both “weak” and “arrogant”, too “old-fashioned” and too trendily modern, too “middle-class” and too concerned with poverty. Even allowing for the tendency of voters who’ve dumped a party to talk up its supposed faults, this disenchantment seems deep. “Those we spoke to were not expecting to return to Labour any time soon,” writes Mattinson. “Instead, they were waiting for Labour ‘to completely reinvent themselves’.”
That’s a tall order for any party – especially during a pandemic, while it’s also trying to hold a manic government to account. But the sheer distance between the views of these voters and those of many Labour supporters in the rest of the country raises another issue. The party has always attracted people with different beliefs, from centrists to socialists. It has often lost sections of its support and then won them back. But the red wall’s alienation feels different: more complete, more thoroughly antagonistic towards the left and centre-left. Winning back many of these voters may be impossible – and could even do Labour more harm than good.
Ever since the slide in its red wall vote began, in the early 00s, a whole range of party figures have tried, and usually failed, to reverse it. The Blair government used new regional development agencies to encourage investment in the north, and filled its cabinet with ministers from the region. In the early 2010s, the pressure group Blue Labour tried to make the party more respectful of the red wall’s rooted communities and conservative social values. Then Jeremy Corbyn promised to revive its manufacturing base with a “green industrial revolution”. Labour’s red wall vote rose sharply in 2017, but collapsed two years later.
Now Keir Starmer seems preoccupied by the red wall too. One of his first acts as leader was to hire an authority on it, Claire Ainsley, as his head of policy. In her 2018 book The New Working Class, she argued that policymaking should be more “led” by public attitudes, including those of working-class people who are “older, living in small towns and suburbia, who value security and nostalgia”.
The cautious Starmer has yet to set out his policies, but in his carefully rationed public statements he has emphasised his patriotism, and his respect for the armed forces – both essential political attributes to many red wall voters. Yet as Mattinson’s research and recent political history make clear, it’s going to be very hard for Labour to outbid the Conservatives as the party of flag-waving and traditional values. And as a southerner, a London MP and a former human rights lawyer, Starmer might face quite a challenge in reinventing himself as the champion of people who dislike all these.
Moreover, if Labour tries too hard to appeal to the red wall, it risks alienating many of the supporters it still has elsewhere. The modest recovery in the Labour vote since it lost power – even in last year’s rout, Labour under Corbyn got almost 1.7m more votes than under Gordon Brown in 2010 – has mostly been in urban Britain, among social liberals and the young.
Just as the red wall once was, the red cities are now taken for granted. It’s widely assumed that they’ll always vote Labour, almost regardless of what the party stands for. But that’s wrong: in 1983, London elected barely half as many Labour MPs as it does now. If Starmer makes too many speeches about patriotism and not enough about the problems with capitalism, many Labour supporters may drift off to the Green party, stop voting altogether, or return to the protest politics that some of them practised in the 90s and 00s.
Yet there are still a few ways that Labour could bring its radical and red wall voters together – which it will need to, to win power. For all their differences, both groups still share some common ground. They want more cheap housing, properly funded public services and a fairer economy. Rather than striking reactionary poses, Starmer needs to remind red wall voters that only a Labour government could conceivably deliver any of those – and that the Conservatives represent interests opposed to such change.
And if that argument fails, there may still be one more option. In Mattinson’s otherwise thorough book, as in most media coverage of the red wall, all the interviewees are in their late 30s or older. Young voters – potentially crucial in what are now mostly Tory marginals – are absent. What might win their vote? Labour needs to find out.