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

Brexit broke the Red Wall. Can Labour put it back together again?
Even under new management, Labour faces a tough battle to win back the heartlands and bridge the Brexit values divide, writes John Rentoul

Boris Johnson has used the Brexi divide to create a winning coalition of voters. The biggest new part of that coalition is working-class Leave voters who used to vote Labour, and who switched to the Conservatives in last year’s election. They gave Johnson a string of Tory gains in the north of England, the Midlands and north Wales, an uneven strip of seats known as the Red Wall.

The big question of post-Brexit politics is what will happen to the voters in those seats. It is a question that Deborah Mattinson tries to answer in a new book called Beyond the Red Wall. It is the first substantial attempt to understand this important group of voters, and it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the next election.

Mattinson is well placed to carry out this study. I should declare an interest, as she helped me brilliantly with focus group research for a book about the attitudes of voters in 1989, appelé Me and Mine, in which I tried to find out if Margaret Thatcher had converted the British people to the virtues of Tory individualism (an early Question To Which The Answer Was No).

Mattinson worked for the La main d'oeuvre government under Gordon Brown, an experience she wrote about in Talking to a Brick Wall – it’s that wall metaphor again. She says she gave that book its title because the Labour Party “lost the knack of listening to voters”, although there may have been a double meaning referring to Brown’s inability to listen to advice.

She confesses that “at no point in the decades I spent advising Labour” did she run polling or focus groups in Red Wall seats – “they were taken for granted”. That may be a bad thing, or an argument against the first-past-the-post voting system, but it was entirely understandable until the EU referendum brought to the surface a cultural divide that tested long-established party loyalties.

Encore, she has made up for it now. She has brought her research skills, built around focus groups, to the task. She spoke to people who used to be Labour but who voted Tory in 2019 pour la première fois, in Accrington, Darlington and Stoke-on-Trent.

The Red Wall description was invented by James Kanagasooriam, a Conservative pollster. He is one of the sharpest spotters of modern political trends. He is also credited with identifying the latent Tory voters in Scotland who would respond to an “unashamedly unionist” message in the 2017 election – an insight that yielded 12 Tory gains when Ruth Davidson was leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Mattinson spoke to Kanagasooriam for the book, and he explained that although the Red Wall is a geographical term, he saw it as defined by “attitudes towards culture, Etat, belonging and place”.

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

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

If Red Wallers could build a wall, as one of them said to Mattinson in a focus group, they would build it around London to keep its resented inhabitants in their place

After the election, the Red Wall quickly became a staple of commentary about the new Johnson government, but one of the first observations that Mattinson makes is that the description is not one that Red Wallers themselves recognise. These voters have a strong sense of local identity and loyalty, and an intense patriotism, but little sense of a common interest with other parts of the Red Wall. “Many share a striking sense of isolation,” Mattinson says, recounting how one of her interviewees said that her social life extended as far as a street two blocks away, and that she never went “into town” – namely Accrington town centre, which was “a few hundred yards away at the end of her road”.

They feel distant from the big cities of the north and Midlands, and positively hostile towards London. En effet, if Red Wallers could build a wall, as one of them said to Mattinson in a focus group, they would build it around London to keep its resented inhabitants in their place.

Mattinson admits she was taken aback by the strength of feeling against London: people thought not just that it was unfair that Londoners were better off, but that they had actually “robbed” the north of its resources.

These are the kind of insights that are hard for political activists and commentators to understand. As Charlotte Alter, national correspondent for Temps magazine, commented on the coverage of the US presidential election, “the most pervasive bias in political coverage is not left versus right, it’s ‘follows politics’ versus ‘doesn’t follow politics’”. Elle a ajouté: “By default, nearly everyone who covers politics falls into the ‘follows politics’ category, which makes it really hard to understand people who don’t.” That 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 irritation.

Many of the themes of Red Wall values are familiar: besides attitudes to London, these voters resent immigration, they want tough action on crime and they mourn the decline of the high street. Immigration may not look salient in opinion polls – it has dropped down the league table of “most important issues facing the country” ever since the EU referendum – but that is deceptive. It is one of the reasons focus groups are so useful: they help tease out the things people really care about, as opposed to their superficial answers to what Lynton Crosby, the Tory elections guru, calls “pop-quiz” opinion polls.

Law and order is the second theme. Red Wallers care about crime and antisocial behaviour. This was the values-based part of the electorate captured by Blair with his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” message and his policy of antisocial behaviour orders.

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

The third theme is the state of the high street in so many northern towns: a reminder, possibly a sepia-tinted one, of a better yesterday. People in each of the places Mattinson visited were intensely proud of the glories of their industrial past, and contrasted it with the modern economy of fulfilment centres and tanning salons. Focus groups often complain about boarded-up shops, the spread of charity shops and cash converter shops, and the decline of pubs, bibliothèques, post offices and cafes. In many places, the closure of Marks and Spencer was highly symbolic of second-class status in the British retail universe – even if focus group members said they didn’t shop there themselves (“nothing decent in it at all – just old lady clothes”).

These were Labour’s 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, the Conservatives have become more successful at appealing to the working classes. By the last election, there was no significant class difference between Labour and Tory voters. The photo that summed up that election was of construction workers holding a sign they had made themselves saying: “We love Boris.”

As the Tory vote became more working-class than ever, the Labour vote under Jérémy Corbyn paradoxically became more middle-class than it had ever been under Blair. Mattinson quotes Paula Surridge, the Bristol University psephologist: “Labour had been moving away from working-class voters for some time, but when Corbyn took over this became turbo-charged.”

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 is why he appointed Claire Ainsley as his director of policy. The former director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the anti-poverty organisation, she wrote a book called The New Working Class dans 2018, and is credited with Labour’s recent emphasis on patriotism. She and Mattinson both see voting Leave as a vote against a distant class of London-based politicians. In Red Wall seats, voters tend to think it is Labour politicians who have stopped listening to them. Despite Johnson’s background, they thought he was on their side. Mattinson quotes Julie from Darlington, who said he was “funny and down to earth even though he’s posh – I do like the man”. Maria from Stoke thought he was a “strong leader who cares about the country and cares about ordinary people”.

The question, mais, is how long this will last. The opinion polls are contradictory. Although Johnson’s personal rating has worsened in recent weeks, more people still say they would vote Conservative than Labour in an election. What is striking about public opinion this year is that the huge disruption of coronavirus has left the parties roughly where they would have been, if nothing else had happened apart from Labour replacing an unpopular leader with a relatively popular one.

Over the longer term, up to the likely date of the next election in 2024, one of the uncertainties is whether “getting Brexit done” – not just leaving the EU, but leaving the EU single market after the transition period finishes at the end of this year – will start to change the way that Brexit decides politics. Will the way people voted in the referendum four years ago have less of a role in party voting in future?

Everything about Mattinson’s research suggests not. “Listening to voters over three decades has taught me that Brexit was a symptom, not a cause,” she writes. “Exposure of these stark cultural and ideological differences had been a very long time coming.” So it is likely to be a long time going, trop.

Mattinson’s book makes sobering reading for any Labour supporter who thought that simply replacing Corbyn with Starmer would transform the party’s prospects. It has eliminated a negative, and put Labour back in contention again, but this book shows how hard it will be hard for the Labour Party, even “under new management”, to overcome the Brexit values divide.

‘Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next’ by Deborah Mattinson (Biteback, £16.99) is available now