Brexit broke the Red Wall. Can Labour put it back together again?

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NSOrris Johnson has used the Brexit divide to build a winning coalition of voters. The biggest new part of that coalition are working-class leave voters who voted for Labor, and who moved to the Conservatives in last year’s election. He gave Johnson a string of Tory advantages in the north of England, the Midlands and north Wales, an uneven strip of seats known as the Red Wall.

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The big question of post-Brexit politics is what will happen to the voters in those seats. It’s a question that Deborah Mattinson attempts to answer in a new book called beyond the red wall. This is the first significant attempt at understanding this important group of voters, and is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the next election.

Mattinson is well prepared to conduct this study. I must declare interest, because he helped me brilliantly with focus group research in 1989 for a book about voter attitudes, called me and mine, in which I sought to find out whether Margaret Thatcher had converted the British people into the virtues of Tory individualism (an early question that had no answer).


Mattinson worked for the Labor government under Gordon Brown, an experience he wrote about. talking to a brick wall – It’s that wall metaphor again. She says she gave that book its title because the Labor Party “lost the habit of listening to the voters”, although its inability to listen to Brown’s advice could have a double meaning.

She confesses that “in decades I spent no time advising Labor” whether she ran polls or focus groups on Red Wall seats – “they were taken lightly”. This may have been a bad thing, or an argument against the first-past-the-post voting system, but it was completely understandable until the EU referendum allowed a cultural divide to surface. did not bring what used to test long-established party loyalty.

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Nevertheless, he has now made up for it. She has put her research skills to work, built around focus groups. She spoke to people who used to be Labor but who voted Tory for the first time in 2019, in Accrington, Darlington and Stoke-on-Trent.

The red wall detailing was invented by James Kanagasuram, a Conservative pollster. He is one of the sharpest identifiers of modern political trends. He is also credited with identifying secret Tory voters in Scotland who would respond to a “shameless unionist” message in the 2017 election – an insight that gained 12 Tory gains when Ruth Davidson was leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Mattinson spoke to Kanagasuram for the book, and he explained that although the Red Wall is a geographical term, he defined it as an “attitude towards culture, state, belonging and place”.

Johnson giving a speech on the economic response to the coronavirus in Dudley in June

Those approaches have existed before, but previously they were part of Labor’s electoral coalition, which dominated politics until 2010. There was enough social conservatism in Tony Blair’s New Labor – tough on crime and strong on national security – that it was able to keep these voters on board with its liberal-left middle class supporters. Brexit broke that alliance and created new ones, as demonstrated most clearly by Blair’s loss of his seat to Sedgefield in County Durham.

If the Red Wallers could build a wall, as one of them told Mattinson in the focus group, they would build it around London to put its angry residents in their place.

Following the election, the Red Wall soon became a major focus of commentary about the new Johnson government, but one of Mattinson’s first comments is that the description is not what the Red Wallers themselves identify with. These voters have a strong sense of local identity and loyalty, and an intense patriotism, but have little in common with other parts of the Red Wall. “Many share a striking sense of isolation,” says Mattinson, recounting how one of her interviewers said her social life stretched to a street two blocks away, and that she had never been “in town”. – namely Accrington town centre, which she was “a few hundred yards from the end of her street”.

They feel distant from the larger cities of the North and Midlands, and are positively hostile to London. In fact, if the Red Wallers could build a wall, as one of them told Mattinson in a focus group, they would build it around London to put its angry residents in their place.

Mattinson admitted that she was struck by the strength she felt against London: people not only thought it was unfair that Londoners were better, but that they had actually “robbed” the answer of its resources. .

These are the kind of insights that are difficult for political activists and commentators to grasp. Charlotte Alter as National Correspondent Time The magazine commented on its coverage of the US presidential election, “The most widespread bias in political coverage is not left versus right, it is ‘follows politics’ versus ‘doesn’t follow politics'”. She continued: “By default, almost everyone who covers politics falls into the ‘follow politics’ category, which makes it difficult to understand those who don’t.” This is what makes Mattinson’s book so valuable: it allows those who follow politics to understand the values ​​of those for whom politics is mostly a distant jealousy.

Many themes of Red Wall values ​​are familiar: in addition to attitudes towards London, these voters are angry with immigration, they want tougher crackdown on crime, and they mourn the collapse of the High Street. Immigration may not seem prominent in opinion polls – it has trudged down the league table of “the most important issues facing the country” since the EU referendum – but it is deceptive. This is one reason why focus groups are so useful: They help tease out what people really care about, as opposed to their superficial answers, Tory election gurus call “pop-quiz” opinion polls. .

Law and order is another matter. The Red Wallers care about crime and antisocial behavior. This was a value-based portion of the electorate captured by Blair with his “tough on crime, tough on causes of crime” message and his policy of anti-social behavior orders.

M&S’s Walsall branch, which was closed in 2018 as part of wider measures to revamp the chain’s Midlands stores

The third theme is the state of the high street in so many northern cities: a reminder of a better tomorrow, possibly a sepia-hued one. The places Mattinson visited took great pride in the glory of their industrial past, comparing it to the modern economy of fulfillment centers and tanning salons. Focus groups often complain about the proliferation of board-up shops, charity shops and cash converter shops, and the decline of pubs, libraries, post offices and cafes. In many places, the closure of Marks & Spencer was highly symbolic of second-class status in British retail – even though members of the focus group said they themselves did not shop there (“nothing civilized in that – just the old lady”. clothes”).

These were Labor voters, inherited from a time when class was the main determinant of political identity and voting behaviour. But Brexit changed that, and in the last two elections, conservatives have been more successful in attracting the working classes. Until the last election, there was no significant class difference between Labor and Tory voters. The picture summarizing that choice was of construction workers saying to themselves: “We love Boris.”

As the Tory vote became more working class than ever, the Labor vote under Jeremy Corbyn paradoxically became ever more middle class under Blair. Mattinson quotes election scientist Paula Sarridge of the University of Bristol: “Labor had been moving away from working-class voters for some time, but it got turbo-charged when Corbyn took over.”

Protesters gather outside John Smedley Mill in Matlock, ahead of the Prime Minister’s arrival during the 2019 election campaign

Keir Starmer understands the challenge. That’s why they appointed Claire Ainsley as their policy director. Former director of the anti-poverty organization, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, she wrote a book called The New Working Class in 2018, and is credited with Labor’s recent emphasis on patriotism. He and Mattinson both see Voting Leave as a vote against a far-right section of London-based politicians. In Red Wall seats, voters think it is Labor politicians who have stopped listening to them. Despite Johnson’s background, he thought she was on his side. Mattinson quotes Julie from Darlington, who said she is “funny and down to earth, even though she is posh – I like the man”. Maria of Stoke thought she was a “strong leader who cares for the country and cares for the common people”.

The question, however, is how long this will last. Opinion polls are contradictory. Although Johnson’s personal ratings have deteriorated in recent weeks, more people say he would vote for Conservative than for Labor in the election. What is striking about public opinion this year is that the colossal disruption of the coronavirus has left parties almost where nothing other than Labor would have replaced an unpopular leader with a relatively popular leader.

In the longer term, until the likely date of the next election in 2024, one of the uncertainties is whether “Brexit is being done” – not just leaving the EU, but leaving the EU single market at the end of the transition period. This year – Brexit will begin to change the way politics is decided. The way people voted in the referendum four years ago, will it play a lesser role in the party’s voting in the future?

Doesn’t tell everything about Mattinson’s research….


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