Labour pollster: Ignore the Red Wall at your peril

Some years ago, a reporter from this newspaper asked a then cabinet minister about what benefits the proposed HS2 link would bring to the area.

The minister waxed lyrical about how HS2 would transform Birmingham's economy, and looked slightly puzzled when the reporter repeated the question, tactfully explaining that our circulation did not extend to Birmingham.

Such an encounter would be unlikely to happen today. Front-benchers are now meticulously briefed on local geography. But it does, perhaps, shine a light into the disconnect many people in provincial towns feel with what they see as an increasingly London-centric political class.

If there is one thing the past year has taught politicians, it is that they ignore the so-called 'Red Wall' at their peril. It was the traditionally Labour-voting constituencies of the North and the Midlands which last year proved crucial to delivering the Conservatives their biggest election victory in 32 years. And in her new book, Beyond The Red Wall, Labour pollster Deborah Mattinson examines why people in these seats deserted Labour in 2019, and what this means for the future of British politics.

Mattinson, who first worked for Labour during Neil Kinnock's ill-fated 1987 election campaign, focused on three provincial towns – Stoke-on-Trent, Darlington, and Accrington – for her research, but it could easily be argued that similar results would have been found in West Bromwich, Telford or Wolverhampton.

Mattinson was born in Darlington, but moved 'down south' at the age of seven, and had not visited her home town since her teens.

The phrase 'Red Wall' was first coined by Tory strategist James Kanagasooriam last year, who observed a band of Labour seats running from the Midlands across to North Wales and Merseyside. For the purposes of her book, Mattinson added the former mining communities of the North East which Labour lost to the Tories in the 2019 election.

It is quite telling the characteristics which she attributes to people in Red Wall constituencies: they are fiercely loyal to their own towns and "talked about their nearby cities, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle as if they were another country"; that they will invariably travel by car rather than use public transport; and that "abroad was discussed as somewhere for an occasional holiday in the sun, rarely as somewhere that might offer career opportunities."

Many people in provincial towns and cities will see these observations themselves as underlining a perceived hubris among the metropolitan elite. Why would somebody from Dudley, Walsall or Telford feel a connection to Birmingham? How can somebody without access to London's tube system get by without a car? Isn't the idea of working abroad really just a preoccupation of well-heeled young graduates lacking a sense of belonging? On the other hand, these divides will only be healed if people on both sides try to understand each another.

While Mattinson identifies a negative perception of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership as a crucial factor in Labour's defeat, she says it would be wrong to lay the blame entirely at the former leader's door.

Rather she suggests the backlash felt by Labour in 2019 was the culmination of years of pent-up frustration building up since the latter days of Tony Blair's leadership. Mattinson suggests people initially stuck with Labour out of a sense of class loyalty, but felt increasingly angry as the party appeared to move away from their traditional values.

"As I listened to the voters more and more over the weeks, I found myself wondering why did these people vote Labour for so long?" she says.

Mattinson says many of them had not been that interested in politics, and voted Labour out of habit.

"But when they did stop and think about it, they felt aggrieved: at best ignored and taken for granted, at worst taken for fools," she adds.

And Mattinson confesses that she may be partly culpable for this.

"Other than the occasional by-election, at no point in the decades that I spent advising Labour did we ever consider running focus groups or polling in any of the Red Wall seats," she admits.

"Their reliability was seen as a given, quite frankly, they were taken for granted."

Mattinson says many of the people she spoke to told stories of their town's former glory with great pride, and a sadness that areas which had once been seen as important to the whole country were now viewed as inconsequential.

While some of these voters had already begun to peel away – perhaps explaining why Telford turned blue for the first time in 2015 – Mattinson argues it was the Brexit referendum that brought these wounds out into the open.

"Brexit was not the cause of the malaise, but it brought those simmering divisions to a head," she says. Mattinson tells how one man in a focus group celebrated the referendum result by running round his bedroom punching the air with joy, telling her how he enjoyed sticking two fingers up to the elite. Another first-time Tory voter, a library campaigner called Yvonne Richardson from Darlington, told Mattinson how the attitude of the 'elite' towards Brexit made her so angry:

"They started attacking people like me and calling us ignorant and ill-educated," she said. "It was paternalism, 'we know best'."

Mattinson says this resentment was exacerbated by the surge in Labour Party membership among younger people which took place around the time that Corbyn was elected as leader in 2015. Many traditional Labour voters felt their party had been taken over, and that "Labour was the party of naive and idealistic middle-class students – arrogant kids boasting degrees but lacking life experience, young people who looked down on them".

Mattinson points out that Boris Johnson's own background as an old Etonian "whose middle-name is de Pfeffel" does not make him a natural ally of the Red Wall either, but that his patriotism and positivity seems to have struck a chord. He might not have much in common with Red Wallers, but they do believe he is prepared to listen to them rather than tell them why they are wrong.

So what does the future hold for Labour in the Red Wall seats?

The good news for Labour is that its biggest obstacle to winning back the Red Wall, former leader Jeremy Corbyn, is no longer at the helm, and his successor, Sir Keir Starmer, is viewed much more favourably. Also, as Brexit gradually fades from the public consciousness, anger at the way the party handled the referendum may subside.

But the bad news for the party is that while the coronavirus pandemic may have shaken these first-time Tories' confidence in Boris Johnson, it appears few of them are in a hurry to return to their old allegiances.

"Having rejected the party at the 2019 election and made the break, several now felt that it would take a lot to encourage them to switch back," she says.

Mattinson concludes that both Labour and the Tories have much work to do if they are to win – or retain – the support of vast swathes of the country which feels it has long been neglected.

"After all the time I spent in the Red Wall, I believe that electorally it remains firmly up for grabs," she says.

"It will not be easy for Labour to win back, but nor is it a shoo-in for the Conservatives as they try to hang on to those seats.

"Without doubt, this will be the battleground that determines the next election and, possibly, the elections that follow it too."

*Beyond The Red Wall by Deborah Mattinson, priced £16.99, is on sale now.

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