How the Labour party’s ‘red wall’ turned blue


It started with my bedspread as a child. My seventh birthday present from an eccentric relative was a duvet cover of a detailed Office for National Statistics map of the UK. Every childhood evening was devoted to poring over the names of towns I couldn’t pronounce and places I’d never been.

The first time I saw a political map overlaid on top was when I was 16: the bottom half of the country largely blue and the top red. I was hooked. I had to find out why this was the case, and that is essentially what I’ve been doing in the two decades since, working as a pollster and data strategist.

The “red wall” — a political concept I’ve been developing for the last year — is the culmination of those nights beneath the duvet. The red wall is what delivered Boris Johnson’s election victory: three contiguous groups of post-industrial, Leave-leaning seats — 63 in total — which, until today, had not had a Conservative MP in decades, but probably should have given their demography.

The reason they stayed with Labour was a cultural barrier to voting Tory. The first, and biggest, part of the red wall is a stretch from north Wales, through Merseyside and Lancashire, to Yorkshire. The second is in the north-east of England, and the third in the Midlands. The red wall is dominated by rural, small market-town seats which hug the more diverse safe Labour seats in the cities of the Midlands and the north.

The seats formed part of the political and geographical covenant brokered between Labour’s provincial and urban wings. The message to the Conservative party was that the north was for Labour, never for the Tories. But now Mr Johnson, ably assisted by campaign director Isaac Levido and adviser Dominic Cummings, has smashed the red wall.

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The swing to the Conservatives is the highest achieved by an incumbent government since the second world war. It is a monumental political achievement. Labour, meanwhile, slumped to its worst performance since 1935, and, in the process, lost a host of red wall seats, including Tony Blair’s former constituency of Sedgefield and a clutch of other once-safe Labour redoubts — including Bassetlaw, Blyth Valley, Don Valley, Bishop Auckland, Workington, Leigh, Scunthorpe and Great Grimsby.

Mr Johnson picked up 33 of the 63 seats in the red wall. These had been the glue that bound together the two and three-digit majorities won by Labour under Mr Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005. But without large sections of the red wall, it will be almost impossible for the party ever to govern again.

This is a political revolution akin to what happened in Scotland after the 2014 independence referendum. In the general election the following year, Labour, previously dominant north of the border, was almost wiped out, losing 40 of its 41 seats to the Scottish National party.

The tale of how the red wall turned blue is a long one. These seats didn’t break for the Tories overnight. On the contrary, the Conservative share of the vote has been creeping up here since 2005, when it was 24 per cent against 51 per cent for Labour. In yesterday’s election, Labour and the Conservatives took 42 per cent each.

The consequences of this huge Tory victory are many. The new Conservative party — for that is surely what has been born, with nearly a third of the 2019 intake new MPs — will have a different feel, different priorities, different accents and, crucially, a different mandate. This is not just to “get Brexit done”, but beyond that to deliver economic and cultural security for the people Labour left behind.

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The New Jerusalem that the new model Tory party will seek to build is not a light-regulation, low-tax “Singapore on Thames”, but something closer to European Christian democracy: a balanced and interventionist state seeking to provide a minimum quality of life for all citizens, tax cuts for the lower paid, infrastructure spending, and a rebalancing of investment in the regions. The political economy of this country is set to change — perhaps for good. And that is what the voters who returned Mr Johnson’s new cohort of younger, more ethnically diverse MPs demand.

The writer is a partner at Hanbury Strategy and was an adviser to the Conservative party in Scotland 2015-17



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