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Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour lost, how the Conservatives won and what will happen next?

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5 min read

'Beyond the Red Wall' is a candid account of how Labour came to lose its former heartlands – Deborah Mattinson’s conversations with previously loyal voters are an interesting perspective on a story I know well.

I couldn’t help but smile whilst poring through Deborah Mattinson’s account of her conversations with ‘red-wallers’, residents of those seats that changed hands and went Conservative in 2019. Her latest book, Beyond the Red Wall looks at the reasons and attitudes that framed the Conservative victory in countless traditional labour ‘heartlands’ in 2019 and, I think, reaches some fairly sound conclusions.

The comments that she heard in focus groups across Hyndburn, Darlington and Stoke are the same ones that I heard in Mansfield back in 2017 before we won that constituency for the first time in its history.

The cultural values that Labour espoused under Corbyn’s leadership were an anathema to red wall voters

“Labour no longer represents people like me” or “they used to be for the workers, but not anymore”. I heard this all the time, along with “I could never vote for THAT MAN” – meaning Corbyn of course. In a constituency that takes pride in its patriotism, in love of our country and our armed forces, the cultural values that Labour espoused under Corbyn’s leadership were an anathema to red wall voters. From Mattinson’s examples it seems that this feeling was even stronger in 2019 and is a huge part of what caused the Labour bricks to crumble.

I am delighted to be joined by new colleagues from across the Midlands and the North, many in unprecedented victories for their constituencies similar to the one we enjoyed in Mansfield two years earlier. Those new voices, with different accents and different experiences to many who have come before, have certainly changed the nature of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. I for one think that is brilliant.

It’s really interesting to hear a story that I know very well from one perspective told from the other side. Mattinson was a Labour Strategist as recently as working with Gordon Brown prior to him becoming PM in 2008. There is genuine honesty in the early part of the book, where she freely admits her shock at the scale of Labour’s unpopularity, but I think still correctly diagnoses things.

She surmises that Brexit was a symptom of a deeper cultural divide, as well as recognising the tone in which people across the ‘Red Wall’ refer to ‘Southerners’. This divide is bigger than just Brexit. It’s a perception of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, the ‘elites’ and ‘the rest’. It manifests itself in other ways too, like the hyper-polarised arguments about political correctness or the ongoing battle of Black Lives Matter.

Whilst Corbyn and Brexit are major factors in accelerating this electoral shift, it’s actually a long term trend. Go back to 1997 and watch the Labour majorities in many of these seats fall consistently over the years. In Mansfield 20,000 became eleven, which became six, five and then gone. Twenty years of change, not just a recent phenomenon. The author admits that Labour never even once during her tenure thought to do focus groups in these ‘heartland’ seats. They took them for granted, and only realised too late that their hold wasn’t so firm as they’d thought.

In closing, Mattinson draws conclusions for the future, including what impact Covid might have on people’s electoral decisions (a whole new book in itself, one would imagine) concluding that views on Government and leadership had definitely changed, with the unprecedented health crisis leaving the PM on tricky ground. However she also noted that it had not yet changed the voting intention of the ‘red-wallers’ she met, with many sympathetic to the impossible challenge of keeping everyone happy through coronavirus, or saying that ‘true blue patriotism’ still left him head and shoulders above the Labour Party.

This is true in my experience too. I haven’t yet experienced any real shift back towards Labour in my own constituency, despite the obvious challenges and problems in fighting the virus. Keir Starmer has an awful lot to prove if he is to break through the barriers erected against Labour’s most recent incarnation in the Red Wall.

She proposes some aims for Starmer’s leadership. Number one: ‘Laying out what he believes in’. So far it seems Labour’s leader has still not recognised the frustrations of many working class voters on issues of culture. He took the knee for Black Lives Matter and spoke at his conference last week of a ‘systemic racism’, which seems to imply our country as a whole is racist and flies in the face of the pride in Britain; the patriotism that is described in the book. In my view there is a long way to go if they are to break through and claw those voters back...but then we live in unprecedented times. 

Number two: prove they can be trusted with the economy, a tough nut to crack perhaps and particularly in opposition. Three and four are about getting back in touch with working class voters and addressing this perception of the North/South divide, whilst five is to ‘lay out a positive vision for Britain’.

These are probably fairly pertinent goals, and I think that all are actually inextricably linked. My own advice would be this: rebalancing the economy in favour of the north is vital to helping those voters feel like they are getting their fair share, it’s a ‘must’. But don’t underestimate the importance of British culture and working class values too. One will not be enough without the other and Keir Starmer is going to have to make big policy calls on issues like immigration, where expectations from red wall voters will likely be in total opposition with those of his members. Many big calls and tough tests lie ahead if he is to win their trust.


Ben Bradley is the Conservative MP for Mansfield. 

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