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The Conservatives cannot afford complacency about the Red Wall – it holds the keys to Downing Street

4 min read

Historians will look back on the 2019 General Election as one of the watershed moments in modern British politics.

The toppling of the once impregnable Red Wall showed that many people, including in my constituency of North West Durham, no longer believed Labour spoke for them, their towns and villages, their families or their values. And for the first time many put their faith in the Conservative Party to do just that.

The result changed this country’s political landscape. Conservative heartlands spread north as Labour’s became even more confined to the centres of big cities. But recent events have led some commentators to question whether the 2019 election might have been a one-off, and whether voters might return to type next time around.

This is not the case, according to the thinktank Onward’s latest research on the future of British politics. They have found that, far from being a one-off, decades of demographic changes have turned huge swathes of Northern England and the Midlands steadily more Conservative. This is unlikely to revert before the next election.  

In fact, Onward pinpoints an additional 36 constituencies in Northern England and the Midlands that could be won by my party next time around.

However, this will require a wholehearted commitment to a campaign strategy and manifesto that puts the needs and aspirations of the party’s new northern voter base at its heart. This means delivering on the promises made at the 2019 election and making genuine progress at levelling up communities up and down the UK, including mine in North West Durham.

Some of my colleagues may naturally question whether doing this would risk the Conservative Party spreading itself too thin. Onward’s research suggests that this is not the case. Just two in ten battleground constituencies at the next election are likely to be in southern England, while six in ten are in the North. So clearly after polling day the keys to Downing Street will be found in Northern England.

Much has been said in recent weeks about a potential Lib-Lab pact to oust the Conservatives from power. I have been around politics long enough to know that speculation about this surfaces ahead of every general election and it has never quite met up to the hype. Even if it did, Onward’s study suggests that it would be very unlikely to remove the Conservatives from Government and it is almost impossible that it would deliver a Labour majority.

The Labour Party loses elections because it long ago lost the ability to speak to the country. No shady backroom deals with the Lib Dems, Greens or any other party will change that. People rightly fear a coalition of chaos with Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP calling the shots with Labour propped up by a host of minor parties.

However, Labour’s disconnect is not a licence for Conservative complacency. It has undoubtedly been a difficult few months for the Government and my constituents expect better. We are now just a few years away from the next election and my parliamentary colleagues and I will need to be armed with reasons for people who lent their votes to us last time to do it again. If we can’t do this, as Onward warns, there’s room for populist parties to spring up and cost the Conservatives dozens of northern seats – like they did by standing in 2019 and ensuring 20 or so seats kept Labour MPs. The most likely outcome in this scenario would be a Labour-lead in a hung parliament.

It is important for those of us working in the day-to-day cut and thrust of politics to periodically take a step back and see the bigger picture. Onward’s latest research is a timely reminder for the Conservative Party that the winds of political change are blowing northward and they offer it a chance to build new political heartlands in Northern England.

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham

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