Burying the Red Wall

I stumbled on this Tweet the other day.

The chart referred to is a list of the top 60 Tory targets in the 2019 election, ordered by the size of swing required (which effectively means by the size of the incumbent party’s majority over the Tories, but the figures look smaller). 24 are Labour seats, in England, with majorities of less than 5%; in the event the Tories took 19 of them (step forward Battersea, Bedford, Canterbury, Portsmouth South and Warwick & Leamington – good work, lads).

Here are all the gains the Tories made from Labour in England – well, almost all; the map doesn’t extend far enough south to show Ipswich, Stroud and Kensington, so there are 45 seats here instead of 48.

Following Dan’s suggestion, the colour coding on this map based on how many successive elections each constituency had had as a Labour seat when it was taken by the Tories. Pale blue are 2017 Losses, seats that Labour took in 2017, or in two cases in 2015. (Labour made quite a lot of gains in 2017, didn’t they? Wonder if anyone’s drawn any lessons from that.) The deep blue are Ye Olde Laboure Heartelandes, seats that had been Labour since at least 1983; most of them go back to February 1974 (the first general election under the current franchise). Medium blues are Labour going back to 1997 (or in one case 2001); lastly, greys are seats whose Labour election count stood at zero, as they had gone into the 2019 election with an MP who had already left Labour – and who was, in all these cases, actively campaigning against their old party. (I’m referring to John Woodcock, John Mann, Ian Austin, Ivan Lewis and Angela Smith. Any resemblance between this list and a list of “absolute dangers expelled from the Labour Party” is for the reader.) I don’t usually set much store by the Ned Lagg Effect – people tend to vote for a party, not an individual, as individuals ranging from Jim Sillars to Ivan Lewis have discovered to their cost. But 2019 wasn’t a normal election; in a campaign one of whose dominant messages was Are You Going To Hand Britain Over To Terrorist Communist Traitors?, the discovery that your own (formerly) Labour MP was actually endorsing the whole Communist-terrorist thing must have shifted a few votes in those constituencies.

First impression: there’s a lot of pale blue. There’s also a fair bit of deep blue, but it’s scattered all over the map and consists very largely of spread-out, semi-rural constituencies. But we can do better than that. Here’s a map from the previous Red Wall post – now revised and updated, incidentally, and featuring the definitive description of the Red Wall courtesy of its original inventor (tl; dr interesting, but I’m still not impressed). This map has 51 constituencies on it: the (only) 50 Labour constituencies where the Labour vote share went down in 2017 relative to 2015, and Scunthorpe (I’ll explain why Scunthorpe in a minute).

Edit 13/2 Thanks to the reader who pointed out that I’d misidentified Scunthorpe as Hartlepool. No idea how I did that – it’s not even on the coast! Corrected.

The colour-coding here is the version used in the previous post: the deep blues are long-term Labour seats where the 2019 Tory majority was 5% or more and the Labour vote had fallen by 10% or more relative to 2017 and the Labour vote was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001; the mid-blues are other long-term Labour seats that went to the Tories in 2019, while the reds are seats that Labour held in 2019. (Scunthorpe, in purple, is a ‘deep blue’ seat that doesn’t strictly qualify to be on this map, as Labour’s vote share rose between 2015 and 2017 – by half of one percent.)

Now, let’s tidy up and simplify a bit. I said at the top of the post that there were 24 seats where Labour’s margin over the Tories was 5% or less, and that the Tories took 19 of those. Let’s say for the sake of argument that any party having a good election is likely to have successes at that kind of level: if what we want to explain is why the Tories got such a big majority, or why Labour’s seat total fell so low, the sub-2.5% swing seats aren’t the place to look. So we’ll eliminate those 19 seats from the first map, to give 29 gains instead of 48, of which the map shows 29 instead of 45 (the three southern seats omitted from the map are among the 19).

As for the “long-term Labour, vote share down in 2017” map, let’s take out the Labour holds – we’re not interested in those right now – and, again, take out the 19 sub-5%-majority seats. We’re left with a fairly sparse map showing only 20 seats.

And here are those two maps.

Spot the similarity.

As I said, there are 20 seats on the right-hand map and 29 on the left; the set of Tory gains from Labour in England overturning a majority greater than 5% isn’t identical with the set of long-term Labour seats where Labour’s vote share fell in 2017. But it’s close. The left-hand map (Tory gains against a >5% majority) includes all 20 of the seats in the right-hand map (long-term holds, relative vote share down in 2017); of the remaining nine, five are pale blue (only taken by Labour in 2017), three are mid-blue (1997 gains) and the ninth is grey (step forward Ivan Lewis).

My conclusion here is pretty much the same as the conclusion to the previous, big post (have you read the big post, by the way? recently? it’s revised and updated, you know). In five words, Red Wall: real but small.

The phenomenon people refer to as the Red Wall was the unexpected, large-scale loss of Labour votes to the Tories, apparently caused by long-term Labour voters deciding that they’d liked Labour in the old days but they couldn’t be doing with all this here political correctness, and taking place in the North
the North-East and North-West
the North-East, parts of the North-West and parts of Yorkshire
the North-East, parts of the North-West and parts of Yorkshire, the East Midlands and some places around Birmingham
the North-East, some of the more rural parts of the North-West and Yorkshire, the East Midlands, some places around Birmingham although not Birmingham itself, and also Stoke
a whole bunch of places which really don’t have much in common other than being south of the border and north of Luton. I’m caricaturing, but I do actually think this is a real phenomenon: look at those two maps. But it’s only one phenomenon, and it wasn’t what won the 2019 election for the Tories – arguably it was only because the Tories were already winning the 2019 election that the Red Wall effect really kicked in.

If we’re interested in the Red Wall phenomenon, we’re interested in something that (a) genuinely happened and (b) happened up and down the country, but (c) only happened in a small number of places. Labour needs to make a lot of gains next time round, but whether it needs to make precisely those gains is more debatable – and whether the kind of Labour campaign that would win back Ashfield and Great Grimsby would win the country is very dubious indeed. Apart from anything else, look at the sub-5%-majority places that Labour did hold in 2019 – Portsmouth South, Bedford, Canterbury; look what happened to Labour’s vote share in 2017 in the south-east (scroll down, and brace yourself). If you were thinking tactically for Labour, which area would you concentrate on – the one where Labour lost vote share despite intensive campaigning and national media attention, or the one where Labour gained vote share with hardly anyone even noticing?

So if we are interested in the Red Wall phenomenon, at this stage we’re interested in it partly for purely historical reasons (something unusual did happen in those seats), and partly on a secondary tactical level. Nobody should be asking “how might learning from the Red Wall be useful for Labour?” – but “what errors might the belief that the Red Wall is useful for Labour lead to?” is an interesting and potentially useful question, as is “what biases and presuppositions are likely to have led people to believe Labour should learn from the Red Wall?”. And I think the answer is going to come from a closer look at those 50 seats. (Or 51 if you count Scunthorpe.)

What happened in 2019 (in Bury South)?

This isn’t a question into which I’ve got any personal insight. I went out canvassing in several seats, and I couldn’t swear to you that Bury South wasn’t one of them; the name of the candidate doesn’t ring any bells, though, so I’m guessing not. So I don’t think Bury South was the place where a mock-furious resident jokingly threatened to come and batter us – or rather, as I quickly realised, a genuinely furious resident seriously threatened to come and batter us, and would have done if he hadn’t had to go back inside for his outdoor shoes. Nor was it the place where a hailstorm began, apparently centred on me personally, in the (long) two minutes between my ringing a doorbell and the door opening; or the place where someone who wasn’t even there explained patiently through his Ring device that my party leader was in fact a terrorist, in case I hadn’t realised; or the place where an Asian man and his partner told me that yes, they were definitely going to vote Labour, but told me very quietly and closed the door as quickly as they could.

Ah, the memories.

But no, I don’t remember Bury South. So this is based purely on publicly available data (viz. Wikipedia) and one or two weird tricks in Excel.

Click to embiggen, probably (WordPress has been very weird lately).

What’s going on here? These are the vote shares of the main parties (red, blue, orange), plus UKIP (purple), independent Right-wing parties and individuals (navy) and the Greens and independent Left-wingers (green). Rather than ordering them from Right to Left, I’ve grouped the two major parties and all the minor parties together (ordered Right to Left in both cases). The purple block includes the Brexit Party (2019) and the Referendum Party (1997); the orange block includes the SDP (1983 and 1987). The navy block includes Ivan Lewis (2019) – unfair, perhaps, but he certainly wasn’t standing as an independent Left-winger. Percentage shares are given every time a party gets 3% of the vote or more.

Although the vote shares of all parties add up to 100% in each column (check the first couple of columns if you don’t believe me), the overall height of the column is scaled to turnout. To put it another way, the total turnout can be read off on the left-hand Y axis from the height of the composite column; the (complementary) height of the translucent grey column represents the proportion of the electorate who didn’t vote (less than 20% in 1992, more than 40% in 2001).

The other wrinkle is the red line. This, measured against the right-hand Y axis, gives you the Labour percentage majority over the Conservatives at each election: positive every year from 1997 to 2017, negative 1983-92 and 2019. (Which is another reason why it would be fatuous to call this a “Red Wall” seat; when people talk about places that have been safe Labour seats time out of mind, they’re usually going back a bit further than 1997. “Nay, lass, it’s all Labour round here – has been since Euan Blair were a lad…”)

So what do we see? First, in 1987 and 1992, we see mobilisation of non-voters, primarily to the benefit of the Tories. Labour are coming back from the 1983 low, but – in this seat at least – they’re mainly coming back by reabsorbing the SDP vote and driving the Lib Dems back down to single figures.

1997 looks different, and the two elections after that look the same only more so. Turnout is down in 1997, and it looks as if it’s Tories who are staying at home (although a few of them have gone over to the Referendum Party). There’s also been a substantial shift from the Tories directly across to Labour, who now take the seat. Turnout is through the floor in 2001 and 2005, and again the Tory vote is hitting historic lows; the Lib Dem vote is recovering, however, apparently mainly by taking votes back from Labour.

Then there are 2010 and 2015. The Tory vote is recovering, but only slowly; the real action is in the ‘minor party’ section, which – in this seat as in several others – appears to have been (a) a repository for anti-system, ‘sod the lot of them’ votes and (b) a playground for the far Right (in this case, BNP and English Democrat as well as UKIP). The Lib Dem vote collapses in 2015, as it did in most places; the beneficiaries, in ascending order, are the Greens, Labour and UKIP.

Now look at 2017. Turnout’s up a bit, but what really leaps out is the level of two-party polarisation: even with a Kipper, a Lib Dem and a right-wing independent (listed in descending vote share order), Labour and the Tories together take almost 95% of the vote. Even in the three-party days the two parties’ share never reached 91% – and it had been below 80% at the three(!) previous elections. Voter mobilisation and massive polarisation, greatly to the benefit of Ivan Lewis MP (and was he grateful?).

2019, finally, was… 2019: turnout falls; the minor-party area takes 13% of the vote instead of 5%, as separate fringes of pro- and anti-Brexit voters make their respective points; the Tory vote increases a little while the Labour vote declines quite a lot; and Ivan Lewis himself standing in person isn’t really in the race but does attract 1,366 votes, in a seat taken by the Tories with a majority of 402.

What happened in Bury South, then, was that the New Labour years drove down political participation, demoralised Tory voters in particular, and created a relatively small but significant group of voters whose main motivation was to protest against what they saw as a rotten system. The Coalition, austerity and the collapse of the Lib Dem vote hardened this group’s opposition to politics as usual. In 2017 voter mobilisation and polarisation saw most of those voters going to the Tories, but a minority of them – together with the Green and some of the surviving Lib Dem vote – went to Corbyn, seeing him (correctly) as an outsider planning to shake things up. Finally, in 2019 – just as the bad name that four years of negative campaigning had hung on Labour finally began to cut through – the party’s Brexit positioning brought it into the realm of “politics as usual”; the minor-party vote duly revived, along with the (quietly continuing) revival of the Tory vote; and Christian Wakeford took the seat for the Tories by a margin of 0.8%.

To put it another way, what happened in 2019 was a small-scale replay of what had happened in 2015 – which in turn was only possible because of what had happened in 2001 and 2005 – together with the unwinding (after much persuasion) of what had happened in 2017. Add unfavourable background conditions (the debasement of the national debate, a cynically effective Tory campaign) and unpredictable local factors (Ivan Lewis MP (ret’d)) and you’ve got a Tory win.

How Labour win back similar seats I’m not sure, although one answer would lie in the mobilisation and polarisation exemplified by the impressive 2017 result. (And 2019 didn’t just happen, let’s not forget; a lot of people put a lot of work into reversing that result.) That said, 2017 nationally was also a record year for the Tory vote (highest vote share since Thatcher, more votes than Labour took in 1997); a rising tide floats all boats if you’re not careful, as the 1987 and ’92 results here demonstrate. The reverse strategy – depolarisation, demobilisation and generally driving down the vote – seems to have worked rather well in the Blair years, but I would urge anyone planning a repeat of that particular strategy to remember that New Labour began by exclusively driving down the Tory vote; the attack on Labour’s own vote came later, and began from a high base. Also, of course, the chart rather strongly suggests that 2001 and 2005 led (through the medium of a lot of grumpily apathetic ex-Tory voters) to 2010, 2015 and 2016, which is very much where we came in.

One other thing to stress about Bury South, finally, is that it was a close and a flukey result, as several of Labour’s 2019 losses were. None of the above would have mattered if one in six of Ivan Lewis’s voters in 2019 had stayed with Labour – or if one in 50 of Christian Wakeford’s had stayed at home.

On the bright side, Wakeford’s our comrade now, so none of it does matter! Isn’t democracy great?

 

 

There Is No Red Wall

As you’ve probably noticed, Labour is doing well in the polls at the moment. One polling result that got a lot of exposure recently was this one:

The pollsters – J L Partners – hail from Downing Street, no less; James Johnson was previously a SpAd to Theresa May and Rory Stewart.

What I found particularly interesting about this was the reference to “45 Red Wall seats” – the constituencies in which the polling had been carried out, presumably. Could this be a definitive answer to the old question, what is the Red Wall?

Well, (a) it’s not that old a question, and (b) yes it could, sort of – although this is, to my knowledge, the fourth distinct version of the “Red Wall”, so it could all change again. (Update 15th February: it turns out that this was actually the sixth version; see below for details.)

Let’s go back a bit. (NB Some overlap with my earlier series of posts, but at least this way it’s all in one place.)

Red Wall v0: to August 2019

The Red Wall as we know it is the creation of a right-wing think-tanker, an FT writer who previously worked for the Telegraph and the Spectator and an FT dataviz specialist, with additional contributions by Downing Street advisors. And the Red Wall is something we didn’t know – at all – until relatively recently. Up to the middle of August 2019 – less than four months before the election where the Red Wall would feature so prominently – the Red Wall as a political concept didn’t exist; the only people who talked about a Red Wall on a regular basis were Wales football supporters (not shown here).

And then there was

Red Wall v1 (August 2019)

In August 2019, James Kanagasooriam of right-wing think tank Onward identified four groups of seats where the Conservative Party tended to under-perform relative to what the demographics of the area would lead one to expect. One of the four was

a huge “red wall” stretching from N Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster. When you talk about cultural barriers to voting Tory – this is where it is. This entire stretch shouldn’t be all Labour but is

This Tweet was accompanied by a map showing 46 constituencies. Removing one Lib Dem seat and a number of seats that had either changed hands multiple times or only been formed relatively recently – and where, either way, we can’t presume those “cultural barriers to voting Tory” applied – gave 39 seats. Here’s what happened to them in December 2019:

Five of the 39 went Conservative, one of them (Leigh, in paler blue) quite narrowly – and one of the remaining four was Bassetlaw (chequered), whose sitting MP had left the Labour Party and was actively campaigning against it at the time of the election. Cultural barriers one, demographics nil.

But the really odd thing about this, first version of the Red Wall, at least in retrospect, is how little traction it got: nobody really picked up on it at all.

Red Wall v2 (October 2019)

Not, that is, until the end of October, by which time the December election had already been called (and was less than six weeks away). It was then that Kanagasooriam – in the context of a report about something else entirely – revived the Red Wall; now it referred to

a belt of sixty seats in the North and Midlands which the Conservatives have never won. They include places like Wakefield, Great Grimsby and Penistone and Stockbridge. Termed elsewhere as the ‘Red Wall’ by the framework’s author James Kanagsooriam, it is made up of a mixture of constituencies which for demographic reasons have always been quite marginal but have consistently remained Labour; constituencies where the Conservatives significantly increased their vote share in 2017 but didn’t win; and a scattering of seats with five figure majorities but which could be become marginal because of voters’ strong pro-Brexit views.

This more expansively defined group was itself said to be one of three groups of seats which would be determinant of the election result, totalling 109 battleground seats – 60 ‘Red Wall’, 38 ‘Uniform National Swing’ and a cluster of eleven seats in Wales. It’s not clear which were seen as the Red Wall seats, though; while the JRF report listed all 109, it didn’t break them down into the three sub-groups. Sebastian Payne’s book Broken Heartlands does include a table supplied by Kanagasooriam and itemising the ‘Red Wall’ and ‘Uniform National Swing’ seats; however, the table only lists 43 ‘Red Wall’ seats, and several of those listed are not named in the JRF report. In search of a definitive list, I put the two lists together and took out any seat listed under ‘Uniform National Swing’ and anywhere south of the Midlands, then did a bit more tidying-up. It seemed to me that if we were going to talk about seats that the Conservatives have never won, “never” ought to mean something; strictly speaking a seat that was created in 2010 and won by the Tories in 2017 had never been won by the Tories up to that point, but it’s not the impression that word gives. So I removed any seat that had come into existence since 1983, and any seat that had been held by the Tories or Lib Dems at any time between 1983 and 2017.

At the end of all that I didn’t have a list of sixty seats, but I did have 45; and here they are. I give you the Red Wall, version 2, late October 2019. The dark blue seats (14 of them) are big Tory wins; the mid-blues (11) are narrow wins; the chequered area is Bassetlaw, whose sitting Labour MP was campaigning against the party by the time of the election; and the remaining 19 are bricks in the Red Wall that unsportingly stayed red.

It’s… not that much of a wall, really, is it? It’s an awfully long way from Birmingham Northfield to Blyth Valley – 230 miles, in fact – and neither of them has much in common with Blackpool South, Don Valley or Great Grimsby, or Workington for that matter. Apart from being (a) Labour seats up to 2017 and (b) Up North, that is.

Shortly afterwards it was decided – by Kanagasooriam, James Burn-Murdoch of the FT or both – that anything called a ‘wall’ really ought to look a bit like a continuous series of blocks leading from A to B. The FT duly publicised a third iteration of the Red Wall, which is partly a Lancashire/Yorkshire/Midlands slice out of the map above and partly… not. As you’re about to see.

Red Wall v3 (November 2019)

This is what the FT described as “a near-contiguous span of 50 Labour-held seats stretching from the Vale of Clwyd in North Wales to Great Grimsby on the East Coast”. The 43 English seats shown on the FT‘s accompanying map are above, colour-coded according to what would happen in December. Again, grey chequers indicate a seat whose former Labour MP was campaigning against the party; again, deep blue is a big Tory win (9 constituencies), the mid-blue is a narrow win (7) and the red are Labour holds (15). The remaining 12, in the pale blue, are seats that went Tory in 2019 but hadn’t consistently been Labour since 1983 – and consequently didn’t feature in previous versions of the Red Wall. The point of the Red Wall rhetoric, let’s not forget, was that these were Labour strongholds which were now tumbling due to the waning of tribal loyalties. The mid-blue seats – many of which are constituencies where the Tories squeaked a win, as parties having a good election campaign often do – are already a poor fit with this model; the pale blue seats depart from it altogether. In this iteration, “Red Wall” didn’t mean much more than “Conservative targets north of the Wash and south of Morecambe Bay”.

Red Wall v4 (December 2019)

(Updated February 2022) Up till now I’ve somehow missed this morning-after Telegraph story – variously headlined “The 24 Labour heartland seats lost to the Tories for the first time in decades” and “The 24 Labour heartland seats lost to the Tories for the first time” tout court (as we’ll see, the latter is actually more accurate). The seats (22 in England, two in Wales) are listed in a table headed “Fall of the Labour wall”, so I think this listing deserves its place in the genealogy of the Red Wall.

22 wins, right enough; but they weren’t all big wins, they weren’t all seats that had been Labour for longer than a decade or so, and some of them were won with assistance from the former MP. Also, with the exception of Stoke-on-Trent (whose politics have been decidedly troubled for some time), these constituencies look less like “Labour heartlands” than rural and semi-rural seats where Labour supporters had been in the majority for historical reasons. (Which, to be fair, was more or less what James Kanagasooriam was getting at to begin with, even if he later helped bend the concept out of shape.)

Red Wall v5 (The Definitive Red Wall) (September 2021)

(Updated February 2022) It’s been brought to my attention that James Kanagasooriam has not only identified the seats making up the Red Wall but explained how they were selected, in an article in Political Insight co-written with Elizabeth Simon and modestly entitled “Red Wall: The Definitive Description”. All right! Let’s get some political science on this thing!

The Red Wall, in this telling, began with a demographic model predicting the level of the Conservative vote in a given constituency – factors such as deprivation (negatively correlated), higher education (also negatively correlated but less strongly) and the proportion of residents in managerial positions (positive correlation). Constituencies not held by the Tories in 2017 were assessed according to whether they had an anomalously low score on this model, as well as three other factors: a Conservative vote share over 25% in 2017, a swing of over 5% to the Conservatives between 2010[sic] and 2017, and a greater than 55% Leave vote.

70 of the 269 eligible seats hit all four criteria. This group was then winnowed down by excluding seats outside England (and perhaps making other unspecified “geographic exclusions”), as well as excluding seats “deemed too unlikely to switch allegiance”; this gave 28 seats. From the pool of constituencies meeting only three of four factors, another 11 were “designated part of the Red Wall through qualitative selection” (Kanagasooriam doesn’t mention how many were in this pool); finally, “a further three seats, which met two or less of the criteria, were also included based on geographical proximity to other Red Wall seats”.

The 42 included the Speaker’s seat of Chorley; excluding Chorley gives 41 seats, as follows.

That’s 30 out of 41, although only 13 of the 30 are big (dark blue) wins – and again, the East Midlands excepted you’d be looking at that map a long time before you thought you were looking at a ‘wall’ of any kind.

In the discussion section of the paper, Kanagasooriam suggests that his results would have been even better if he’d trusted the data more: none of the three seats that were added on “geographical” grounds (despite only ticking one or two boxes) went to the Tories in 2017, while two of those that hit all four marks but were excluded as “unlikely to switch allegiance” – Leigh and Redcar – did. It’s nice to see a researcher own up to fudging the data, but Kanagasooriam’s suggestion that an unfudged version would have been more accurate isn’t borne out by the data he presents.

The problem is that, as soon as any judgment calls were made on inclusion or exclusion, the whole sample was fudged (to put it euphemistically). What we really need to know is the content (and hence the hit-rate) of all the subsamples – the 28 constituencies that were judged to be ‘true’ Red Wall seats; the 42 that weren’t despite hitting all four marks; the 11 that qualified on three criteria and were added to the sample; the unknown number that qualified on three criteria and weren’t added to the sample; and, of course, the three erroneous ‘geographical’ choices. If all the judgment calls had been omitted, Leigh and Redcar would certainly have been on the list, but none of the 11 added at the third stage would have been. In any case, the list would have numbered 70 constituencies – which, given that the Tories only made 48 gains from Labour in the whole of England, would be bound to bring down the Red Wall’s hit rate and hence its predictive accuracy.

Red Wall v6 (the pollsters’ Red Wall) (January 2022 and doubtless earlier)

So far the December election result has seen the Tories win 5 out of 39 Red Wall seats, 26 out of 45, 28 out of 43, 22 out of, er, 22, and 30 out of 41. The changing meaning of the concept is clearly closing in on the actual result – although the big, eye-popping, “dude where’s my core vote?” victories account for 3 of the 39, 14 of the 45, 8 of the 43, 12 of the 22 and 13 of the 41. (Needless to say, there have been varying degrees of overlap between the 39, the 45, the 43 and the 41.)

You may well be wondering how it can be that opinion polling shows the Tories potentially losing all but three of their 45 Red Wall seats. The three they’re projected to hang on to are familiar enough – Dudley North, Bassetlaw and Great Grimsby, or one former deep blue seat and two chequered in defectors’ grey (interesting in itself) – but where had J L Partners found another 42 Conservative gains? Particularly since, as just noted, the Tories only made 48 gains from Labour in the whole of England (and one loss)…

Hold on to that thought. Here’s the pollsters’ Red Wall.

The list of 45 seats published by the pollsters includes one in Wales (Delyn) which I’m ignoring. The other 44 are shown here, with the usual colour coding. And, wouldn’t you know it, the Tories won all 44! Anyone wondering if there was perhaps a touch of the Texas Sharpshooter about one of the earlier versions can relax – that’s all this is. Red Wall = Tory gain, Tory gain = Red Wall, with a handful of exceptions – in fact the only Tory gains in England not forming part of the Red Wall are Kensington, Stroud, Ipswich and Peterborough, which presumably weren’t considered “Northern” enough. (Scare quotes used because Peterborough is actually on this map – by latitude it’s slightly North of Birmingham.)

The phrase “Red Wall” now means nothing more than “one of the seats the Tories won from Labour in 2019” – which is to say, it means nothing.

Postscript: Is there a real Red Wall?

No. No, there isn’t. Stop it now. Put the psephological buzz-phrase down.

What there is – and what is quite interesting – is a relatively small group of seats which had genuinely been Labour for a long time, and which genuinely went Tory in a big way in 2019. The ‘deep blue’ seats in all the above maps are defined as long-term Labour seats where the 2019 Tory majority was 5% or more and the Labour vote had fallen by 10% or more relative to 2017 and the Labour vote was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001. These three criteria do seem to identify a real phenomenon, setting these seats apart from the ‘mid-blue’ seats (long-term Labour seats won by the Tories in 2019 but where one or more of those factors don’t apply). The highest Labour vote in 2019 in a ‘deep blue’ seat was 39.8%; the lowest Labour vote in a ‘mid-blue’ seat was 39.3%.

On investigating the deep-blue seats more closely I found that almost all of them showed a similar pattern over the previous three elections, with Labour’s margin over the Tories going down in both 2010 and – most unusually – 2017. There are, in point of fact, only 50 Labour constituencies (of 232) where Labour’s margin fell in 2017 – anyone who looked at that election with a degree of objectivity would have to say that 2017 was a good result in lots of ways (as long as they can silence the nagging voice saying yeah but we didn’t win did we…).

Here are those 50 seats.

Key: as before, except that seats with defectors aren’t singled out any more. There’s also one seat – Scunthorpe – in deep purple; this was a ‘deep blue’ where Labour’s margin over the Tories didn’t go down between 2015 and 2017 (it went up by 0.05%).

What does this tell us, though? I think it tells us that, while substantial numbers of people in the East Midlands and the North East (and a couple of other areas) didn’t really feel the love for Corbyn, this only created the opportunity for a major (local) political upset when other factors were present. In a previous post I suggested that the distinctive characteristics of the ‘deep blue’ constituencies were the presence of an sizeable anti-system, “none of the above” protest vote, together with the legitimation of the far Right as a vehicle for protest votes. Both of these localised trends – established in those seats since the New Labour years – made it possible for substantial numbers of voters to switch from the Lib Dems to UKIP in 2015, and for the Conservatives to attract a majority of those voters in 2017. This led to a reduced Labour majority in those seats – and a lot of publicity for some of the affected MPs, who blamed the result on the new leader (although, ironically, under a more ‘establishment’ leader than Corbyn the minority of anti-system voters who returned to Labour might have been much smaller). In 2019, Labour’s Brexit positioning left it looking like the ‘establishment’ party, standing in the way of the Tories’ endorsement of the revolt of 2016; as a result it lost whatever ‘protest vote’ credibility it still had, and lost ground to both the Tories and the Brexit Party. The result, in those 17 constituencies, was a dramatic collapse in the Labour vote.

But note: in those 17 constituencies. The Tories made 47 net gains in England; if they’d made 30 in the entire country they would still have come out with a solid majority. The map immediately above tells us where in England Labour’s margin over the Tories fell – against the current – in 2017, whether or not the Tories won those seats two years later and if so, how well; the map above it tells us where in England the Tories won a Labour seat in 2019, and what kind of a win it was. There’s a lot of overlap, but there are also an awful lot of differences; and lots of the wins – enough wins to make an election victory – were narrow, chancy, unpredictable wins. (They still count, that’s the thing.)

What this whole exercise tells us is that the Red Wall is useful as a concept if you define it tightly enough, but that what it’s useful for is telling us why Labour lost some of the seats it did in 2019 and, perhaps, where similar factors might apply in future. What it definitely doesn’t tell us is “why Labour lost”; this is a small, untypical group of seats, meaning that any reorientation of the party based on the idea of “winning back the Red Wall” would be disastrous.

We can also see that, in practice, the concept of “Red Wall” has steadily converged on that of “Conservative target seat”, to the point where it’s now more or less synonymous with “Conservative gains from Labour in 2019 in England”. (It’s precisely synonymous with “Conservative gains from Labour in 2019 in England, north of 52.4 degrees N, with the exception of Peterborough”, but that’s not quite as snappy.)

Once more with feeling: there Is No Red Wall. If you mean “seats the Conservatives gained from Labour”, say “seats the Conservatives gained from Labour”. If you mean “longstanding Labour seats in the North and the Midlands that the Conservatives gained from Labour by unexpectedly large margins”, say that – but be aware that:

  1. The North is a very big place; it’s 140 miles from Manchester to Newcastle, 115 to Grimsby, 90 to Birmingham. What do you suppose all those places have in common? (Similar distances from London would get you to Southampton, Hereford and, well, Birmingham.)
  2. Our electoral system paints a constituency in the colour of the largest single sub-group of voters, no more and no less than that. If a 38%/42% split between Conservative and Labour at one election turns into 42%/38% at the next, the constituency has certainly gone to the Tories, but the Labour voters haven’t – or rather, only some of them have, and they’re not necessarily the most representative ones.
  3. The story of those longstanding… gained… unexpectedly large seats is an interesting one, but it doesn’t really tell us about anywhere else (e.g. The North, or even The East Midlands), or about anything else (e.g. the overall election result).
  4. Those places have their own political history, which you can dip a toe in by looking at previous election results. You may be surprised by what you see; you may not like what you see. (“Cultural conservatism” doesn’t just mean you aren’t a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race.)
  5. Not everyone who offers Labour bad news and hard truths is doing so because they want Labour to win. The party that doesn’t have any bad news to deal with – the party whose common sense is the other party’s hard truths – starts at an advantage.
  6. Generalising about Labour strategy on the basis of an imaginary version of the ‘Red Wall’, what it stands for and why it supposedly fell into the arms of the Tories (suit and tie, support our boys and God save the Queen) would be idiotic: basing strategy on fantasy can’t possibly work.
  7. Generalising about Labour strategy on the basis of an accurate understanding of the ‘deep blue’ seats, what voters there believe in and why they actually switched to the Tories would be cynical and unprincipled. And – again – it couldn’t possibly work, outside those seats; it wouldn’t even be a recipe for winning back the other 31 losses or holding Labour’s existing seats, let alone making the additional gains the party needs.

What Labour needs above all is to set its own direction, without looking over its collective shoulder at how policy X might play with demographic Y. A good start would be to stop listening to people offering to feed this habit – and to remember that those people aren’t always friends of the party.

Angry man

Now that Labour seem to be heading back down the New Labour route, there’s been a bit of debate about just how bad the Blair years were. Iraq we know about, of course, and PFI, but apart from that – it was a Labour government, after all, wasn’t it? They did fund public services properly – after 2001, at least; and there’s the Human Rights Act to think of, and the minimum wage, not to mention Sure Start… Lots of stuff in their favour, surely. Lots of reasons to vote Labour, even if Labour meant New ditto – a choice that may be confronting us again soon.

Looking for something else just now, I stumbled on a letter I sent to Jack Straw – in his role as Shadow Home Secretary – in March 1996. I knew I hadn’t voted Labour in May 1997 – which put me in quite a lonely place, even on the Left – but I’d forgotten that I’d made up my mind about the blighters some time before then. In March 1996, at any rate, I knew what I thought.

Before I quote the letter, here‘s the news story that sparked it off.

Labour wants to change the law which forbids research into juries, to allow academics to find out whether working-class or unemployed jurors are more likely to acquit defendants than middle-class ones. Jack Straw, Labour’s home affairs spokesman, says that at the moment the evidence is little more than anecdotal but, he says, “There should be research on who refuses jury service and on the composition of juries.”

Even if research produced no correlation between class and acquittal rates, he still says everybody should sit on juries as part of the obligations as good citizens. Mr Straw believes that too many of the middle classes evade jury service.

Stephen Ward, the Independent. Ward adds:

An earlier smaller study in Birmingham, before research was banned in 1981, showed no correlation between sex, age or class and the number of guilty verdicts, and found manual workers were under-represented on juries.

This, as you can imagine, struck me, and I wrote to Straw asking whether he actually meant what he appeared to be saying. (The new improved WordPress editor makes it almost impossible to write a quoted block of multiple paragraphs and won’t allow a quoted block containing bullet points at all, so you’ll just have to imagine the formatting of the following.) (Update: there’s still a back door to the “Classic Editor” – go in via yourblognamehere/wp-admin/edit.php.)

Take it away, 1996 me:

Dear Jack Straw,

For the last fifteen years I have always voted Labour, at council, General and European elections. I think it’s only fair to mention that at present I can see no prospect of being able to vote for the party again, and that your actions and pronouncements as Shadow Home Secretary have a lot to do with this decision.

However, I’m writing about a more specific point, on which I would genuinely appreciate some clarification. You have been reported as saying that the propensity of wealthier individuals to opt out of jury service, results in juries which are disproportionately working class (my terminology) and hence less likely to believe police evidence, which is a bad thing and likely to result in perverse verdicts (your deductions).

Assuming you were reported correctly and believe what you were saying, I wonder:

  • do you believe that Britain’s police forces operate to such high standards of probity and accuracy that credulity can safely be preferred to scepticism?
  • do you believe that working class people suffer from some sort of irrational bias against the police, to which their social superiors are immune?
  • how does this argument against the working class fit in with New Labour’s aspiration to represent the whole nation equally? (I assume that you regard the party’s association with the working class in particular as so much historical baggage).

One final query. Now that Labour stands for an ideology as socially reactionary as it’s economically timid, what do you recommend to those of us who support common ownership and legal raves, who believe in raising income tax and decriminalising soft drugs? We’re clearly not welcome in the Labour Party any more. Any chance of a referendum on PR?

Yes, now it can be told – 25 years ago I was in favour of a new Left party, just as soon as one became electorally viable. (If I’d lived in Scotland I might have ended up wasting an awful lot of time.) As far as Labour went, though, there was hardly anything there to vote for, let alone campaign for – or perhaps it’d be fairer to say that there was a lot there to vote against, and even to campaign against.

I think the point I’m making is that there’s no shame in being opposed to New Labour, Sure Start or no Sure Start. (Did you know SS was a Home Office project, by the way? Tough on crime…) Let’s be blunt: we’re not talking about “holding out for your dream manifesto” or “refusing to settle for 70%” – and we’re not talking about ancient history either. Within the last 20 years, the Labour Party has advocated (and implemented) policies in a range of areas that no one on the Left could support or even tolerate.

New Labour was a huge lurch to the Right relative to the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s, let alone the 1945 government. We’re not back there yet, but it’s pretty clear that that’s the direction of travel. As the neo-New Labour settlement emerges from the triangulating murk, we need to see it for what it is and be prepared to act accordingly (…a Labour Party member writes. I didn’t say we need to act immediately.)

Branch life (2)

Earlier this year our Labour Party branch held its AGM (online). The main business of the evening was electing officers, or rather re-electing officers: of nine elected positions, seven office-holders were re-elected and an eighth position was taken by someone who had held other positions in previous years (eight other positions, to be precise, in the previous five years). Even the sixteen positions of delegate to the constituency party were mostly taken either by officers or by people who had served as delegate multiple times before.

The secretary, in particular, was elected to the post for the fifth successive time. Back in 2017, when the Left took a run at getting some positions in this branch, we stood a candidate for secretary, but they didn’t really have a chance: incumbents have many advantages over any challenger, and an incumbent secretary has more than most. Everyone who goes to so much as one party meeting knows the secretary; everyone knows he’s efficient and even-tempered, keeps things running and doesn’t wind anyone up. Which is all true. He’s also a member of a clique dedicated to keeping things much as they are, with offices shared between a rotating cast of familiar faces and with the Left kept firmly at arm’s length – but it’s hard to get the vote out on that basis, not least because any Left candidate would need to be able to show that they had the qualities to be a competent secretary. Which I’m sure lots of people do, but it’s difficult for any of them to demonstrate it to members of this branch without first getting elected to something.

A few weeks ago the branch was called on to re-select – or de-select – one of our three councillors. (The ward used to be competitive between Labour and the Lib Dems, but then came the Coalition, which had the usual effect on the Lib Dem vote; our councillors have all been Labour since 2011.) It was the turn of a long-serving, well-liked and not particularly right-wing councillor, and nobody was very surprised when reselection was a formality. What did come as a surprise was the announcement soon afterwards that one of the other two councillors was standing down for personal reasons; a by-election would be called, and we needed to elect a candidate to stand in it. Word was that the favoured candidate was our secretary.

A shortlisting meeting was duly announced to the membership, with a lead time of a few minutes over 96 hours; the same email also announced a selection meeting, to take place four days after that. Seven days, not four, is the minimum interval laid down in party rules; however, the rules also stipulate that the Manchester party hierarchy – like the NEC nationally – can waive requirements like this if it sees fit. I was surprised to see that a list of six candidates emerged from the shortlisting meeting – our secretary, a Left candidate and four others – but less surprised to hear, on the night of the selection meeting, that three of them had withdrawn.

In the mean time candidates had been given an opportunity to send out emails to all members – and, two days after the shortlisting meeting, our secretary and the Left candidate both did so. The Left candidate set out an impressive record of campaigning and activism, both in the party and in the local community. Our secretary for his part offered us a double-sided full-colour flyer, complete with pictures of himself out and about in the area, testimonials from colleagues within the party (“he will be a fresh face on the council and a brilliant councillor”) and five pledges to his (future) electorate – although on closer inspection these consisted largely of itemising the people he intended to “work with” (“our current councillors”, “local traders, businesses and the local Traders Association”, “officers at Manchester City Council”, etc). We also learned that he had been a caseworker for the local MP for the last six years. (A friend asked the Manchester party whether other candidates would have the chance to send out something like this, and was essentially told that there was nothing stopping them – with the strong implication that their candidate and ours started out on a completely even footing, and that neither had any materials or facilities available to them other than what they could rustle up in two days and pay for personally.)

At the selection meeting, two days later, quite a long time was spent on checking the credentials of everyone involved, by the novel method of having one person compile a handwritten list of names (in the order they logged in) and then call them out for checking by two other people who had the membership list, while a third person kept an eye on the chat and called out anything that cropped up there. (Strange that more people don’t attend these meetings, really.) When all that had been sorted out, the three remaining candidates each gave a brief address and answered a selection of questions. Questions on social care and on a local green space campaign gave both the Left candidate and the third candidate the chance to demonstrate principled commitment and engage with the detail of what’s possible locally, identifying specific actions which the council could take. A question on the EHRC report seemed less directly relevant – indeed, one Jewish party member objected to having their identity put up for debate at a council candidate selection meeting – and could have been designed to put a left-winger on the spot. Our Left candidate trod a careful line, neither minimising the problem of antisemitism in the party and society nor acquiescing in the conflation of anti-semitism with anti-Zionism. The third candidate’s answer seemed designed mostly to avoid the issue entirely, although they did begin with the curious assertion that the pandemic had made racism and antisemitism worse. (Whereas in fact antisemitism stopped being a problem in April 2020, of course.)

As for our secretary, his answers to the substantive local questions could not have been blander or more vague; his stress throughout was on damping down expectations of how much could realistically be achieved, and the need to “work with” people – and charities, and businesses – in order to deliver even that. He only really displayed any passion on the question relating to the EHRC report: those were dark times for Labour… how far an anti-racist party had fallen… he was proud to have put his name to a motion to affiliate to the Jewish Labour Movement… it was imperative for us to build bridges with the Jewish community… anyone who didn’t agree with that objective, frankly, he didn’t think they belonged in the party. We shall see if anything comes of that; all I’ll say here is that, considering the high probability of the axe falling on anti-Zionist Jewish socialists (here as elsewhere), talking about swinging it in the name of “the Jewish community” is a bad joke.

So the Left candidate performed well, at least in terms of having good ideas, being on top of the issues and handling a tricky question on the fly. The third candidate was a bit more vague and waffly, and the secretary didn’t really cover himself in glory at all – unless what you want from your local Labour councillor is extreme gradualism and a staunch commitment to one particular position in a century-long dispute within the British Jewish community. Would the voters be swayed?

Well, what do you think?

It was at our last council candidate selection meeting that the similarity between our local party meetings and a wedding first struck me. There were three candidates that night, too; the people the local establishment had turned out voted for their candidate, the people we’d turned out voted for the Left candidate, and the third candidate basically got the votes of the people she’d come with. It would have saved a lot of time to cancel the speeches and just station ushers on the doors where people came in – left-wing challenger side or centre-right establishment side, sir?

I wouldn’t have thought that the voting this time round could be even more polarised, but it was: the Left candidate got about a third of the votes, the secretary got two-thirds and the third candidate got… one vote. Second preferences did not need to be counted. This, for a safe seat on the council; this, for a candidate explicitly offering business as usual (with a side order of war on the Left); this, in one of the biggest ward branches in the city. All this, in a meeting taking place a week and a day after the vacancy was first announced to branch members, and attended by approximately one-eighth – maybe even less – of those members.

And that, children, is where Labour councillors come from.

Anniversary

My anniversary post is the same this year as it was eight years ago, on the 40th anniversary. I’ve nothing to add, other than to say that for some of us 2017 felt a tiny bit – a tiny bit – like that.

Growing up in the 1970s, it’s hard to overstate how important the cause of Chile was. 11th September 1973 was, I suppose, a “naked lunch” moment – a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork; we knew who was on whose side, and what they were willing to do.

Joan Jara:

on the 18th of September … a young man came to my house, said, “Please, I need to talk to you. I’m a friend. I’ve been working in the city morgue. I’m afraid to tell you that Victor’s body has been recognized,” because it was a well-known — his was a well-known face. And he said, “You must come with me and claim his body; otherwise, they will put him in a common grave, and he will disappear.”

So then I accompanied this young man to the city morgue. We entered by a side entrance. I saw the hundreds of bodies, literally hundreds of bodies, that were high piled up in what was actually the parking place, I think, of the morgue. And I had to look for Victor’s body among a long line in the offices of the city morgue, recognized him. I saw what had happened to him. I saw the bullet wounds. I saw the state of his body.

And I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in the sense that I had to face at that moment what had happened to Victor, and I could give my testimony with all the force of what I felt in that moment, and not that horror, which is much worse, of never knowing what happened to your loved one, as what happened to so many families, so many women, who have spent these 40 years looking for their loved ones who were made to disappear.

But the real significance of 11th September wasn’t the treachery or the horrors of the coup itself, or the years of brutal misery that followed. The coup mattered because of what it destroyed: the beginnings of a radical social experiment, bringing millions of people a chance of a decent life, some power over their own lives, a bit of confidence in the future. The sheer joy of that period has never been captured better than in this song (which I’ve cited before but not linked). Listen to the middle eight – it’s as if Victor Jara’s saying, you get it now? being alive is good, being in love is great, but this – this is happiness! this is how we were meant to live!

Forty-eight years after that hope was destroyed, let’s celebrate it. (Translation in comments.)

Maria,
abre la ventana
y deja que el sol alumbre
por todos los rincones
de tu casa.

Maria,
mira hacia fuera
nuestra vida no ha sido hecha
para rodearla de sombras
y tristezas.

Maria, ya ves
no basta nacer, crecer, amar,
para encontrar la felicidad.

Pasó lo mas cruel,
ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz
y tus manos de miel

Maria…

Tu risa brota como la mañana,
brota en el jardín
Maria…

Pulling strokes and taking liberties

Here’s what I know about politics: people pull strokes.

If you’re working in an organisation like the Labour Party, there’s a gap, in terms of goals and ideals – a normative gap – between what you say is happening and what’s actually going on in procedural or institutional terms. Narrow votes are a particularly glaring example of this gap: you say that the party is united behind your programme, and maybe it is – or maybe you took a vote on the programme committee, your programme won by eight votes to seven and that’s that. Thinly-attended meetings are another: you say you’ve got a large and lively membership firmly committed to Labour victory, but on closer inspection the ‘large’ membership is mainly on paper, the ‘lively’ refers to the two or three new faces who always seem to appear for doorknocking sessions, and everyone’s ‘firmly’ committed because your faction has a lock on any decision-making meetings.

Looking back on Corbynism – a phrase that’s almost physically painful to write – I think a large part of the Right’s failure to comprehend the phenomenon, and a large part of our indignation and outrage in response, had to do with the unexpected narrowness of this gap. We said that there were thousands of us and we were united, and they automatically translated this into a more mundane procedural reality – some bunch of Trots has pushed this whole thing through and got a load of kids to sign up to the mailing list… Hence 2017, of course; by 2019 they’d realised that there were thousands of us and we were united, and stronger measures needed to be taken.

But there’s also another normative gap, between what you say you’re doing in procedural terms and what you’re actually getting away with. Rules very often aren’t written down, and when they are they need to be interpreted; applying a rule at all involves applying a secondary rule of equity and fair play, to the effect of Any rule should be enforced in all cases where it applies, and only those cases. How effectively that rule gets applied is more important than the content of any written rule.

Of course, rules don’t exist, at least in the sense of tangible things in the world: if you’re physically unable to do something, your behaviour in that respect is not being controlled by a rule, and vice versa. (The shopkeeper who takes alcohol off sale outside licensing hours is following a rule; the punter who doesn’t try to buy it in those times isn’t.) Rules only exist to the extent that people observe them – and to the extent that they expect others to observe them and apply pressure on others to observe them. This is particularly true of that secondary rule, the rule that rules should be applied fairly. Anyone who, as an individual, visibly breaks the rules, or pulls strokes in selectively applying the rules, will tend to get stopped by their peers – not because those people are high-minded idealists, but because they know that they would get stopped if they did the same thing.

Rules don’t exist as tangible objects, so people can ignore them – the ‘fair play’ rule in particular – without any immediate or automatic consequences. But rules do exist, in the sense that everyone internalises them and brings pressure to bear on anyone who flouts them – the ‘fair play’ rule in particular. Only when somebody is powerful enough not to fear other people’s social pressure can they really get away with ignoring the rules – and very few individuals are that powerful, at least not for very long.

A group of people, on the other hand, is insulated from social pressure, at least from outside the group. If a group of people, with shared goals in the longer term and shared enemies in the short term, can apply rules to its advantage, there’s every reason to expect that they won’t apply those rules fairly. Attempts to bring social pressure to bear on the group are unlikely to have any effect; all that anyone outside the group can really do is try to stop them. Stop them collectively and stop them altogether, that is, not just stop the bad apples within the group who are applying the rules badly; it’s up to the group to do that – and they’re not likely to do it for as long as applying the rules badly works to the group’s benefit.

This, then, is the first lesson from the story linked to above. If you pass a rule saying that Socialist Appeal is proscribed and anyone involved with it can be expelled, and people are then expelled for being seen at a public meeting held by Socialist Appeal before it was proscribed, it’s perfectly clear that this is not a fair or appropriate application of the rule: to that extent Ann Black is quite correct. The question is, given the factional makeup of the current Labour leadership, what did anyone think was going to happen when that rule was passed? The disciplinary apparatus of the Labour Party hasn’t gone rogue, despite appearances; the people involved are only acting this wildly because they’re acting with factional, and leadership, endorsement. Social pressure won’t reach them; they can only be stopped.

How to stop them is another question – and this is the second lesson. The current frenzy of expulsions wouldn’t be happening if those responsible couldn’t get away with it. If we could stop them, we would have stopped them by now; in particular, if organising against expulsions could stop them, it would have worked by now. (One of the organisations proscribed was Labour Against The Witchhunt, for goodness’ sake.) These expulsions are a kind of random, symbolic punishment beating for the Left, administered in the hope of getting us to shut up and/or leave. We can resist – at least by not leaving – but we can’t, at the moment, stop them happening.

There are times when bullies overreach, usually because their victims are stronger than they wish to acknowledge. That’s not what’s going on now, though. This is just plain, ordinary bullying, and it’s being done because we’re weak. Nothing is going to change for the better until that changes.

Branch life

It’s gone a bit quiet here, hasn’t it?

On April the 6th, as you’ll doubtless recall, I started a series of posts called In Search of the Red Wall, in which I was sceptical of the thesis that Labour had lost in 2019 because, ultimately, we’d lost the old working class vote, and specifically because we’d lost a huge tranche of culturally conservative “heartland” seats in the North of England. Having traced the development of the concept – which followed a surprisingly tortuous and disjointed path – and shown how fatuous it basically was, I concluded by proposing to analyse what had actually happened in 2019.

This takes us up to the 21st of April. On the 28th I returned to the topic and began the explanation of what happened – and what didn’t happen – in December 2019, in a post ending with these pregnant words:

Something big happened to Labour’s vote in 2019, and it happened right across the country – and it wasn’t a swing to the Tories, despite the Tories benefiting from it in a big way.

But what was it?

Here we are in June – not even the beginning of June – and still no ‘part 2’. I will get to it, and I have got some idea of what I’m going to say – at least, I’ve got some numbers, and any amount of charts – but I’ve not found it easy to get around to, and not just because I’ve had other stuff on.

I suspect that one underlying reason is the reason why I didn’t do much to analyse the figures straight after December 2019: it’s just too damn depressing. And not ‘depressing’ in the ‘why I’d rather not watch Schindler’s List with my takeaway’ sense – depressing in the will-depleting, immobilising, what was I trying to do never mind don’t suppose it matters sense of the word.

Which is also, frankly, why I haven’t been having a lot to do with our local Labour Party. Last year – just pre-pandemic – I wrote about the ward AGM which had been due in the Autumn of 2019 and was postponed to February 2020. I went along, but I wasn’t hugely impressed:

several officers either stayed in post or moved sideways, and several posts were uncontested. … looked at from outside it might seem odd that, in a ward branch with a membership nudging four figures – the size of some entire CLPs – it’s only possible to find one person interested in any of the officer positions.

We met in the same place as last year, and I think we were pretty much the same people as last year; we were certainly in very similar numbers to last year, viz. around 70 … Which also helps explain the uncontested elections. Seven days (the notice period required when calling a branch AGM) is not a very long time – and membership secretaries don’t hand out contact lists to anyone who might want to do a quick bit of phone-banking. This is all according to the rules, of course, but these ‘home team’ advantages (and others created by officers’ role in the AGM itself) mean that the likelihood of anyone disrupting the orderly self-perpetuation of the dominant faction is pretty slim. … The result is a kind of political Sealed Knot, an annual reunion of the office-holders and their factional activists on one side and the diehards of the excluded group(s) on the other. They might as well take allegiances at the door, like ushers at a wedding, and declare the results straight away.

This year… sorry, it just looked too much like hard work. But it looks as if I’m not the only member locally who felt like that. The email announcing this year’s results opens

Thank you to the fifty members who attended our online Annual General Meeting on Monday 7 June 2021. It was great to see so many people. 

Oh, the people!

Viewed with a colder eye, even without the barrier to participation of having to turn out and sit in a church hall, attendance was down from 70 to 50 – which is to say, down from about one in 14 of the 2020 membership to about one in 20. (Although the 2021 membership may also be lower, of course.)

As for the business of the meeting, here’s a summary:

Chair: re-elected x1, former x4

Vice Chair: re-elected x1, former x3

Vice Chair: former x8

Secretary: re-elected x4

Treasurer: re-elected x3, former x1

Membership Secretary: re-elected x3, former x3

Women’s Officer: new

Political Education Officer: re-elected x1, former x2

Diversity Officer: re-elected x1

Delegates to the constituency party General Committee: 16 candidates, all elected unopposed (Chair, both Vice-Chairs, Treasurer, Membership Secretary, Diversity Officer, plus two delegates re-elected x4, four re-elected x2 and four new members).

“Re-elected” = re-elected to the post; x2 (etc) = re-elected for the 2nd time (etc); “former” = held one or more elected post in one or more previous year. (My data only goes back to 2016; the re-election counts for some of these candidates will certainly be too low.) Note also that last year’s GC delegates included five members from the Left of the party, none of whom stood this time – so the four new members are unlikely to add to the ideological diversity of the delegation.

It’s not, as they say, a good look. As I said in 2020,

what kind of membership are we building, if members keep seeing the same names in the same posts, or else (for a change) the same names in different posts? … I’ve always believed that uncontested elections and musical-chairs rotation of posts were signs of a local party in decline – not of one that’s going from strength to strength, as ours apparently is. Perhaps the problem is precisely the apparent absence of factions – or rather, the impossibility of multiple factions arising when a single faction dominates for long enough. Perhaps what we’re seeing is how unchallenged factional dominance sows the seeds of decline.

It’s certainly not motivating.

So, anyway – what happened in 2019? One contributing factor to Labour’s defeat in 2019, it seems to me, is that self-perpetuating cliques like the one I’ve just described threw away the enormous asset created by the party’s increased membership, because it wasn’t an asset that served their factional purposes – and threw away any slim chance to get a Labour government elected, because that wouldn’t have served their factional purposes either. In this they acted entirely logically – mobilisation of the membership would inevitably have threatened their position, and another 2017 (or better) would certainly have increased the demand for mobilisation – and really, all they can be blamed for is valuing local posts within a political party more highly than the possibility of a Labour government.

But that’s an impressionistic explanation, and one from a source that may not be entirely reliable (embitterment can do that). What else happened in 2019?

NEXT: another blog post. No, really.

What happened in 2019 (1)

What happened in 2019? This:

20172019+/-
Labour40%26232.1%202-7.9%-60
Conservative42.3%31743.6%365+1.3%+48
UKIP / Brexit Party1.8%02.1%0+0.3%0
Lib Dem / Green / independents9%1315.9%12+6.9%-1

Any further questions?

To unpack that a little: Labour’s vote fell by a fifth, but the Tory and UKIP/BXP vote rose only a little; the main beneficiaries in terms of votes were the minor centrist (and pro-Remain) parties. The sole beneficiary in terms of seats was the Conservative Party, for reasons which both were and weren’t predictable: that they would benefit was predictable because of the two-party bias imposed by our absurd electoral system, but as for how much they would benefit, have you looked at our absurd electoral system recently? Another table:

2010201520172019
Conservative36.1%30636.9%33042.3%31743.6%365
Labour29%25830.4%23240%26232.1%202

Labour’s 2019 vote share is significantly higher than 2010’s, for less than 80% of the seats. Or you could look at the Tories’ 2015 vote: in comparison, Labour got 8/9ths of the votes, for 3/5 of the seats. We can even see this disproportion happening from one election to the next: both Labour in 2015 and (more dramatically) the Tories in 2017 increased their vote share and lost seats. (“All hail, Theresa May, who shall lead the Conservative Party to win its highest vote share since Thatcher, with more votes than Labour took in 1997!” The witches were having a laugh that day.) Really, the system’s a lottery; it’s amazing we take it as seriously as we do.

But that is the system we’ve got, and those are the figures it produced. And, speaking of disproportions, there’s something about the scale of the Tories’ gains from Labour, compared to the much more modest increase in votes, which seems to cry out for explanation. One candidate explanation, as we’ve seen – albeit a hazy and impressionistic explanation, as we’ve also seen – is the ‘Red Wall’. Perhaps it wasn’t a Tory wave but a Labour collapse. Perhaps the youth-powered bien-pensant liberalism of today’s Labour Party had drifted so far from the ageing demographics and conservative culture of the party’s traditional support base that some of its northern strongholds were ready to drop into the Tories’ hands (always bearing in mind that the word ‘north’ covers everywhere from Coventry to Berwick-upon-Tweed).

Well, perhaps. The trouble with this explanation (as we’ve seen) is that it only explains about a third of Labour’s losses. But might it be useful anyway, applied not to the seats we actually lost but to near misses? A good question, and one that calls for a map.

The nationwide trend for Labour was a drop of 7.9%, with the Tory vote going up by 1.3%; this adds up to a deterioration in Labour’s relative vote share of 9.2%. The deep purple constituencies on this map are the big losses: the ones that Labour lost with a drop in its relative vote share of 18% or more, roughly twice the national change.

The pale purple are all other losses – barring a few further south – and, as you can see, they outnumber the deep purple handily. What’s more interesting are the red seats, which are all those seats that Labour held with a drop in its relative vote share of 18% or more – in other words, the seats where the same factors that were at work in the deep purple group are (perhaps) lurking, storing up trouble for future elections.

In short, if there is a Red Wall, this is the map to show it – and, if there is a Red Wall, it’s partly in south Yorkshire and Derbyshire, partly north of Durham. There’s no denying that this is an interesting map, and one that highlights some problem areas for Labour (that stretch running from Pontefract down to Bolsover in particular). But do those red and deep purple areas tell us anything about “Labour’s heartlands” in general – or about how the election was lost? I can’t see it.

The other end of the scale is interesting too – and for this one we’ll be venturing south of the Wash. Two maps:

On these two maps, the red and orange areas are Labour holds, the blue Tory holds. The pale blue and orange areas are constituencies where Labour’s vote share relative to the Conservatives fell in 2019 by less than 4.5% (i.e. less than half of the national average). The darker blue and deep red areas are constituencies where Labour’s vote share relative to the Tories actually rose in 2019 (including one where I went canvassing – which is pretty much the first evidence I’ve seen that any of the canvasses I was involved in had any positive effect).

What’s interesting about the red and orange seats is not so much where they are (Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Bristol, recent wins Canterbury and Portsmouth South and of course the capital) as how few there are of them; the Labour vote just fell away, by a lot, right across the country. Or at least, right across the country in Labour seats: check out the duck-egg blue South-East. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that you can walk from Lewes to Aylesbury without ever entering a Tory constituency where Labour’s relative vote share fell by more than 4.5%; not very much, probably. Still, those washes of pale blue are at the very least interesting, particularly considering how many of those same seats saw a rise in Labour’s relative share in 2017.

One last map. Was this a victory for the Conservatives? Clearly it was in terms of seats gained, but see above, absurd electoral system. In terms of a big rise in vote share… not so much.

The purple and blue areas are constituencies where the Tory vote rose by at least 5% relative to 2017. The purple areas are seats lost to the Conservatives, as usual; the blue areas are Labour holds. Pale blue and pale purple show a rise of 5-9.9% in the Tory vote, dark blue and dark purple a rise of 10% or more. The beige areas, finally, are constituencies where the Tory vote didn’t go up by as much as 5%, but Labour lost the seat to them anyway.

It’s striking, relative to the beige areas, how few Labour losses are purple, and how very few are deep purple. It’s also striking, relative to the map as a whole, just how few seats are either blue or purple. Despite the huge shifts in relative vote shares in some constituencies (shown on the first map), there were only a handful of constituencies where the Tory vote share rose significantly. Conversely (referring to the second and third maps) it was only in a minority of constituencies – and a small minority of Labour constituencies specifically – that Labour’s vote share didn’t show a significant fall.

Something big happened to Labour’s vote in 2019, and it happened right across the country – and it wasn’t a swing to the Tories, despite the Tories benefiting from it in a big way.

But what was it?

In search of the Red Wall (8)

THE STORY SO FAR: There is no “Red Wall”.

To be more precise, it’s not possible to identify any group of constituencies that fit all the criteria for the “Red Wall” as it’s usually described (large numbers of previously long-term and solid Labour seats which went Tory in 2019, clustered together, somewhere in the North of England). The Tories did win in some surprising places in 2019, with constituencies which had been Labour for twenty years or more suddenly showing a 10-20% drop in the Labour vote. Long-term patterns of voting in these constituencies suggest that a disaffected, “none of the above” voting bloc has played a significant part for some time, and that the Tories’ success in 2019 was largely due to the capture of this anti-political vote by the Brexit Party and (in a bizarre irony) by the Conservative Party itself.

Here (again) are the voting patterns for one of these constituencies, Don Valley in south Yorkshire.

It’s not hard to see what’s going on. A sizeable Liberal Democrat protest vote in 2005 is joined by far-Right protest voting in 2010, eating into Labour’s normally substantial majority. In 2015 the Lib Dems had been discredited by their participation in the Coalition. The benefits go in part to Labour; there is also a new repository for antipolitical voting in the form of UKIP, which in addition gains support from right-wing Tory voters. Polarisation returns in 2017, with the Tories capturing most – although not all – of the UKIP vote. This means that their position relative to Labour improves again, putting them in a good position to capitalise when the next wave of antipolitical protest voting – spearheaded by the rebadged Brexit Party – peels votes away from Labour in 2019.

Disaffected voters express their opposition to both the “old parties” by voting for the Lib Dems in 2005; for the Lib Dems, UKIP and the far Right in 2010; for UKIP in 2015; and for both the (Brexiteering) Tories and the (anti-system) Labour Party in 2017 (but mainly for the Tories). Consequently, Labour’s position relative to the Tories goes Down between 2005 and 2010, goes Up between 2010 and 2015 and finally goes Down again in 2017.

For completeness’ sake we can also consider what happened in Bishop Auckland:

Which is… pretty much the same, except that Labour didn’t noticeably benefit from the Lib Dem collapse in 2015 – either because the Lib Dem votes they gained were mostly matched by losses to UKIP, or because antipolitical Lib Dem votes transferred to UKIP direct – with the result that Labour lost ground with the rise of UKIP as well as with their decline. Labour’s position relative to the Tories went Down in 2010, Down in 2015 and Down in 2017.

We see these patterns – particularly the first one – in a lot of the seats Labour lost. It’s a plausible, coherent story, too – the two motors of the whole process are the alienation of a substantial body of voters from both main parties and the failure to completely delegitimate the far Right, and both of those conditions seem likely to have applied in any number of places (particularly places with longstanding Labour councils).

The question then is: do these conditions obtain more widely? They may be scattered around the country and they may not have decided the election in themselves, but are the “red wall” seats just the most visible part of a larger problem? Bluntly, are the seats Labour actually lost in 2019 the tip of the iceberg?

There isn’t much in the way of good news in this story – sitting as we are amid the wreckage of the 2019 election – but the answer to this question does at least qualify as interesting news. Here are the details for the 418 English constituencies which have existed with more or less the same boundaries since 1979, and which were held by the main two parties in 2017.

Reading from the top, the dark red bloc are ‘UU’ seats, those where Labour’s position relative to the Tories went Up in both 2015 and 2017; the paler red are ‘DU’ (Down in 2015, Up in 2017); the pale blues are UD (Up in 2015, Down in 2017); and the dark blue, DD (Down in both 2015 and 2017). I haven’t distinguished between UUU/DUU, UDU/DDU, UUD/DUD and UDD/DDD, partly for simplicity and partly because including that level of detail would make very little difference. (Labour’s position went Down in 2010 in 387 constituencies out of the 418; the UUU subset accounts for 29 of the remaining 31 and UDD and UDU for one each of the last two.)

What do we see? We see that, in 2017, Labour’s position improved in over 70% of Labour constituencies and nearly 80% of Tory seats. Labour seats were considerably more likely to show improvements under both Corbyn and Ed Miliband than Corbyn alone; in Tory seats, by contrast, over 40% – the largest single category – saw Labour’s position deteriorate under Miliband and then improve under Corbyn. If we’re measuring the popularity of party leaders on the basis of the ability to improve the party’s vote share, particularly outside its existing heartlands – an eccentric idea, perhaps, but let’s go with it – then Jeremy Corbyn, as of 2017, was far and away the most popular leader Labour had had since 1997. I don’t recall this point being made very often at the time.

More importantly for the current discussion, where are those DUDs and DDDs? They are there, but – as it turns out – they’re not all that numerous. 39 Labour seats, around 20% of the total, fitted the DUD template that we saw so many times in the previous post; the DDD model only fits another 11. Nor was the pattern any more representative of trends in Conservative seats. 320 out of 418 seats – more than three-quarters – saw Labour’s position improve in 2017, under Corbyn; in 203 of them – nearly half – there were improvements in 2015 as well. Pitching to the DUD seats – and the disaffected 15-20% of Right-leaning antipolitical voters who made them that way – is no way to either gain votes in most Tory seats or hang on to them in most Labour seats.

Time for another map or two, or four. Here’s the north and centre of England, showing Labour and Tory seats where Labour’s relative vote share went down in 2017 (red for Labour, blue for Tory, keep up). There are fifty Labour seats in this category, about 45 of which you can see here.

And here are the Labour and Tory seats where Labour’s position improved in 2017 (slightly different red for Labour… you get the idea). There are 136 Labour seats in this category, of which you see about 65 here.

(Small squiggly constituencies, remember. There are twelve constituencies in the block running north-south from Doncaster to Bolsover, 40 in the east-west block from Birkenhead to Leeds.)

And here’s the south-east. Again, these are Labour and Tory seats where Labour’s relative vote share fell in 2017.

And here are the Labour and Tory seats in the south-east where Labour’s position improved in 2017. (You may want to sit down.)

Small squiggly red constituencies, again – forty of them in London, another ten in Birmingham. As for the blue ones… well, that’s a bit striking, isn’t it? I’m not saying that Corbyn was building a platform for power in the heart of the Tory beast – in a lot of these cases what happened in 2017 was that Labour came third with 10% instead of 8%. But, as I said, if we measure success for a party leader in terms of putting on vote share for the party…

NEXT: So, what did happen in 2019 (and where did it happen)?

In search of the Red Wall (7)

THE STORY SO FAR: The “Red Wall” was defined, in October 2019, as “a near-contiguous span of 50 Labour-held seats stretching from the Vale of Clwyd in North Wales to Great Grimsby on the East Coast”: Conservative target seats in the North West, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, in other words. In December 2019, the Conservatives did in fact make several gains in this belt of seats. Thanks in part to an earlier use of the “Red Wall” label – which had defined the Red Wall as a belt of Labour constituencies with demographics typical of Conservative seats – it has been widely assumed that “Red Wall” seats were solid Labour seats, and that the very culture and traditions that had made them Labour had somehow made them all the more vulnerable to the Conservatives. In reality, most Conservative gains – in the Red Wall and elsewhere – were either marginals without a long Labour history or were won narrowly and/or with a relatively small drop in the Labour vote; in other words, they were precisely the kind of gain we would expect a party to make in a good election campaign, without any need for a more elaborate explanation (and 2019 was, for the Conservatives, a very good election campaign).

So, was there ever a Red Wall?

Here, again, is a table summarising the characteristics of Labour’s losses in England in 2019. In ascending order, group 3 are relative marginals, which had changed hands at least twice since 1997; group 2 are long-term Labour seats, won narrowly in 2019; and group 1 are long-term Labour seats, won solidly (a Tory majority of 5% or more and a drop in the Labour vote of 10% or more relative to 2017 and a Labour vote lower than at any time since (and including) 2001).

Now groups 2 and 3 contain 31 seats, group 1 17; since the Tories went into the 2019 election nine seats short of a majority, groups 2 and 3 on their own would have sufficed for a solid parliamentary majority. Which in turn means that the factors which produced Tory victories in the seats in groups 2 and 3 are the only factors we need to consider, if we’re asking how the election was won.

I think that needed restating. But still… what did happen in group 1?

123
Lowest Labour vote %, 201924.439.336.9
Highest Labour vote %, 201939.844.546
Average Labour vote %, 201934.841.741.1
Biggest Tory majority in %, 201931.412.615.7
Biggest drop in Labour vote %, 2017-1924.915.718.1

That first column makes pretty horrific reading. There were seventeen Labour seats – Labour since 1997 or longer – where Labour got between 24.4% and 39.8% of the vote in 2019, the Labour vote having fallen by somewhere between 10% and 25%, and where the Tories took the seat by a majority of somewhere between 5% and 31.4%. These figures bear no resemblance to the figures in the second and third columns. There’s something going on here – something that needs explaining.

One final map. Here they are: here are all the Red Wallgroup 1 seats, from Workington to West Bromwich.

Seventeen seats: a single block of five seats, plus three pairs and six on their own. A wall it ain’t; James Kanagasooriam’s original intuition – that constituencies in the same region might have a shared set of cultural values, so that a shift in that culture could see several seats at once going to the Conservatives – only looks like being borne out in Derbyshire (and even there neighbouring constituencies – Doncaster, Chesterfield – seem to have remained immune).

Something happened in these constituencies, though, and something worth investigating – arguably all the more so given how widely separated they are. You would not think to look at them that Newcastle-under-Lyme and Bishop Auckland were sisters under the skin, or Don Valley and Dudley North. But perhaps there’s something going on out there.

Here are some election results, going back to 2005.

Here’s what happened in Don Valley.

In 2005 – the post-Iraq election – Labour held the seat easily, taking over half the votes with the remainder divided between the Tories and a substantial Lib Dem vote. (As this was, by some way, the highest Liberal [Democrat] vote in the constituency since 1983, it’s reasonable to assume that the circumstances of 2005 had something to do with it – and the key circumstance at that election was surely Iraq.)

In 2010 – in the dying days of New Labour, post-Blair and mid-crash – the Tory and Lib Dem votes held firm, but Labour lost about a quarter of its vote to anti-political protest candidates of the Right and far Right: UKIP (in purple) took 4% of the vote, the BNP and the English Democrats (in dark blue) another 9%. As a result, Labour’s lead over the Tories – the line overlaid on the chart – fell from above 20% to below 10%.

In 2015 – the post-Coalition, pre-Brexit election – the voters punished the incumbent government again: the Tory vote fell slightly but the Lib Dems, no longer appearing a principled alternative to the main two parties, saw their vote collapse. The Labour vote recovered substantially, but the main beneficiary was, again, on the far Right: UKIP ran the Tories a close third place. The rise in the Labour vote share and the fall in the Tories’ (to the benefit of UKIP) meant that Labour’s lead over the Tories rose again.

In 2017 – the election of maximum polarisation – the Labour and Tory candidates were the only ones that counted; the Lib Dems were squeezed further, and UKIP didn’t even stand. The Labour vote recovered again, taking about a third of the 2015 UKIP vote, but the Tories took the other two-thirds and recovered more strongly. As a result, while the Labour vote share rose again – to reach the levels of 2001 and 1997 – the Labour lead over the Tories fell again.

Lastly, in 2019 – the election we may as well just call The Disaster – the Tories’ vote share held firm at its 2017 level, while Labour lost a sliver to the Lib Dems and a substantial chunk to the Brexit Party (still in purple). As a result, of course, Labour lost the seat.

This is quite a simplistic reading of the data; doubtless there were cross-currents and three-way shifts going on as well, particularly in 2010 and 2015. But let’s assume that I’ve just described the main trends. If that’s the case, a few conclusions seem to follow.

  • There’s a substantial anti-political, “none of the above” vote in this seat: 10-20% of the vote at every election since 2001
  • The Lib Dems profited from this, until they didn’t: joining the government was the kiss of death, and the Lib Dems have effectively been irrelevant (at least in this seat) since 2010
  • Parties of the Right and extreme Right are legitimate in this seat as a repository for anti-political votes; the strength of the BNP and ED vote in 2010, and the extent to which UKIP built on this, is not to be underestimated
  • UKIP/BXP is strategically ambivalent, operating as a pure protest vote (2010, 2019), as a more respectable alternative to the far Right (2015) and as an ante-chamber to voting Conservative (2015, 2019(?))
  • Without Corbyn, the 2017 result would have been much worse for Labour: Labour’s acceptance of Brexit and Corbyn’s image as an anti-system outsider both prevented the 2015 UKIP vote transferring to the Tories en masse
  • However, 2017 looked worse than 2015 for the sitting MP (Caroline Flint), as Labour won by a much narrower margin; this supported the narrative that a decline in Labour’s vote had continued or even accelerated under Corbyn (whereas in reality it had begun to be reversed)
  • What lost the seat in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015’s UKIP protest vote to 2017 Conservatives, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the BXP protest vote, due to the ambiguity of Labour’s Brexit positioning and the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.

So that’s Don Valley. One down, sixteen to go! Hope you’re sitting comfortably. Here’s what happened in Wolverhampton North East:

Well, that’s saved me some typing. There are a couple of differences with Don Valley: UKIP did stand in 2017, and the Brexit Party weren’t significant in 2019 – Labour lost a sliver each to the Lib Dems and BXP, and a substantial chunk to the Tories (whose vote rose substantially from 2017). So there’s one conclusion that needs modifying:

  • What lost the seat in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015’s UKIP protest vote to 2017 Conservatives, the Conservatives’ manipulation of the Brexit crisis so as to present a vote for the government as a protest vote, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the pro-Brexit protest vote, due to the ambiguity of Labour’s Brexit positioning and the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.
  • But otherwise it all looks pretty similar (check out the ‘Labour lead’ line). How about… let’s head up to the other end of the country and check out Workington (where men are men).

    This is getting spooky. How about Blackpool South?

    (Checks notes)… yep. (Note that the fash were already standing a candidate in 2005. We should have taken this stuff more seriously.)

    Great Grimsby?

    One more qualification: Labour took less than 50% of the vote in 2005. Still a pretty solid majority, though. Labour heartland innit.

    Dudley North (Ian Austin’s old seat)?

    That’s a 9.7% vote for the BNP in 2005; in the neighbouring constituency of West Bromwich West they got 9.9%. (If I ran the Labour Party, having a fascist party retain its deposit at an election in a Labour constituency would be grounds for deselection; it doesn’t exactly suggest an assertive local party.) Exactly the same trends as the others, though.

    How about that other odd couple I mentioned earlier, Bishop Auckland and Newcastle-under-Lyme? Let’s take them both together.

    That’s different at least – in both of these seats, instead of rising in 2015, the Labour lead over the Tories falls at all three elections from 2010 to 2017. Does this suggest a different narrative or other conclusions?

    In 2005 Labour held the seat easily, taking over 40% of the votes with the remainder divided between the Tories and a substantial Lib Dem vote.

    In 2010 the Tory and Lib Dem votes held firm, but Labour lost about a quarter of its vote to anti-political protest candidates of the Right and far Right.

    In 2015 the Tory vote fell slightly but the Lib Dems saw their vote collapse. The Labour vote recovered substantially, but the main beneficiary was UKIP.

    In 2017 the Labour vote recovered again, taking about a third of the 2015 UKIP vote, but the Tories took the other two-thirds and recovered more strongly.

    In 2019 the Tories’ vote share held firm at its 2017 level (or rose), while Labour lost a sliver to the Lib Dems and a substantial chunk to the Brexit Party (and/or the Tories).

    The big difference is 2015 (perhaps unsurprisingly); far from a drop in the Tory vote and a substantial rise in Labour’s, these two seats saw a rise in both main parties’ votes, with the Tories’ actually rising more than Labour’s. The overall picture is so similar, though – and the numbers involved (as we’ll see) so small – that I’m tempted to call local factors in aid. What do we call a local Labour Party that can’t make political capital out of five years of Liberal/Tory austerity, and/or can’t put boots on the ground at the subsequent election?

    Otherwise, the same conclusions seem to apply:

    • There’s a substantial anti-political, “none of the above” vote in all of these seats
    • The Lib Dems profited from this until 2010, but have been irrelevant since then
    • Parties of the Right and extreme Right are legitimate in these seats as a repository for anti-political votes
    • UKIP/BXP is ambivalent: a protest vote, an alternative to the far Right and an ante-chamber to the Tories
    • Without Corbyn, the 2017 result would have been much worse
    • However, 2017 looked worse than 2015 for the sitting MP, as Labour won by a much narrower margin

    Most importantly – and this would seem to apply to all the seats we’ve looked at –

    • What lost these seats in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015 UKIP protest voters to 2017 Conservatives, the Conservatives’ manipulation of the Brexit crisis so as to present a vote for the government as a protest vote, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the BXP (and Conservative) protest vote, due to the ambiguities of Labour’s Brexit positioning and to the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.

    So that’s it – that’s your Red Wall. We can call off the dogs: that’s where it went, that’s how it was lost.

    Oh, didn’t I say? It’s not just the eight(!) seats shown above; I’ve looked at voting patterns for all seventeen of the “deep purple”, “group 1” seats up above – which is to say, all the longterm Labour seats that Labour lost heavily in 2019. Twelve of them follow the first set of trends above, the “Dudley North” or “Don Valley” model; another four follow the “Bishop Auckland” pattern. (In the seventeenth – Scunthorpe – Labour’s lead over the Tories was (slightly) higher in 2017 than in 2015; that wasn’t an uncommon occurrence generally, but Scunthorpe’s the only “group 1” seat where it happened.)

    NEXT: Yes, but is this unusual? And does it matter?

    In search of the Red Wall (6)

    In the next post I’ll get into some analysis of what I’m going to be calling the real Red Wall – which is neither red nor a wall, but what else is new? Before that, a confession and a reality check.

    First, the confession: I’ve been avoiding saying very much about “the Red Wall” with the current connotations of that phrase. This hasn’t made the argument I want to develop any easier to articulate. However, when myths are abundant it’s important not to add to them – and it’s almost impossible to say anything about the “Red Wall” without at least perpetuating some myth or other. And myths about the way people think and behave are extraordinarily powerful: they tell people not only what to look for, but how to understand what they find.

    That’s not to say that what people look for and find isn’t real – it is; that’s the problem. It’s a standing joke on the Left that the rank-and-file workers quoted in the party press always turn out to have unusually clear and well-articulated views on the class struggle, but the joke only goes so far: perhaps “Jim Slack, rank-and-file member of the Fire Brigades Union” is better known to you and me as Jim Slack, local branch secretary of the Uniquely Correct Trotskyist Party, but the guy still is a firefighter. Even if you picked a rank-and-file union member completely at random, you’d have some chance of picking a Uniquely Correct Trotskyist – and if you went out looking for an articulate and committed trade unionist, the odds would shorten quite dramatically. Whether Jim is a typical trade unionist is another question, but nobody asked that – we wanted a union member, we got a union member, and here’s what our union member said. (Apparently the perspectives of the Uniquely Correct Trotskyist Party are, in fact, uniquely correct. Who knew?)

    The mainstream press, of course, does exactly the same thing, although they’re considerably more likely to go looking for devotees of Farage and Johnson than of Marx and Lenin. What you look for you will, with a bit of persistence, usually find; what you don’t look for, you almost certainly won’t. As I wrote shortly after the 2017 election,

    Any one of us can assemble a mental image of the white working-class voter motivated by social conservatism and unavowed racism. It’s a social type we’ve become familiar with through all those endless UKIP/Le Pen road trips and exposés, but – more importantly – it’s a type that we already knew about; it goes back to Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death, and to the dockers marching for Enoch. But here’s the thing: we can just as easily assemble a mental image of the working-class voter demanding better pay and conditions, the young idealist getting fired up by radical ideas, the middle-class liberal getting involved in campaigning and moving leftwards … All those social types were right there in the collective consciousness; if John Harris wasn’t going to go out and find them, at least Owen Jones could have had a go. But nobody did; everyone assumed that those people weren’t out there any more, just like they assumed that the working people of Britain had had their heads turned by Farage and Brexit.

    I’m sure there are people out there who fit the “Red Wall voter” template – by which I mean (he added reluctantly) socially-conservative voters, middle-aged or older, whose loyalty to Labour went back decades but was associated with attitudes and beliefs for which Labour no longer stood under Corbyn’s leadership (and perhaps still doesn’t under Starmer), as well as with a class identity which for them had grown less salient and/or meaningful, so that they could switch to voting Conservative en masse without any perceived transformation of their beliefs and values, turning Labour strongholds into safe Conservative seats as they went. I’m sure you can find people like that to talk to if you look. Whether those people are typical or representative of the people whose voting choices actually ensured that the Tories won the last election is another question. While we’re about it, we could also ask whether – even if there were, as a matter of fact, a number of big Tory victories in decades-old Labour strongholds – a comfortable Tory victory could have been delivered without any of them happening, and if so what this tells us about the election and its outcome more generally. We could even ask if the centre-left campaign to abandon Labour under Corbyn had any effect on the result (it would be odd if it had none at all).

    Or we could just carry on talking about the Red Wall. The big problem with the “Red Wall voter” story, and the reason why I’m reluctant to add to it, is the space that it occupies. Indeed, by now it’s more or less been accepted as a starting-point, so that any actual information about voter behaviour in 2019 fits into it as an extension or clarification (“so that’s what Red Wall voters really care about!”).

    Hence the need for a reality check.

    Before:

    Not shown: Ipswich, Stroud, Kensington

    After:

    Not shown: Ipswich, Stroud, Kensington – or any of the 68 seats south of Birmingham that Labour held or gained

    Blue for Tory holds, red for Labour, white for the Speaker, mustard for Tim Farron (remember him? he used to be the leader of the Liberal Democrats (remember them?)). Orange for Labour (re-)gains, shades of purple and grey for Tory gains: deep purple = a big win of a solid Labour seat, mauve = a narrow win of a solid Labour seat, lilac = a marginal, grey = a seat whose sitting MP helped things along by deserting the Labour Party.

    It’s bad, no question about it; those were very bad results, with far too many seats lost. But what kind of seats? Look at the purple seats and then compare them with the red ones, the seats where a plurality of voters stayed with Labour. Are we really saying that the semi-rural sprawl of Sedgefield and Bishop Auckland is Labour’s heartland, and small, densely-populated seats like South Shields and Jarrow aren’t? Are we saying that the Birmingham seats Labour held are somehow less “Labour” than the seats they lost in Wolverhampton and Dudley? Are we saying that Stoke-on-Trent was a Labour stronghold (although its MPs are now all Conservatives) and Hull wasn’t (although its MPs are all Labour)?

    Let’s look, one more time, at the seats lost in the supposed “Red Wall”.

    NEXT: we look, one more time, at the seats lost in the supposed “Red Wall”.

    In search of the Red Wall (5)

    In the next few posts I’m going to ask five questions about the “Red Wall”:

    1. which English seats did Labour lose in 2019?
    2. why did we lose them?
    3. which long-held English seats did Labour lose badly?
    4. and why did that happen?

    The third and fourth questions are about “Red Wall” seats – now entrenched in political discourse as northern, working-class, socially-conservative, Brexit-supporting Labour strongholds, that were held by Labour for generations but tumbled like polystyrene bricks before the Tories’ 2019 campaign bulldozer.

    There is a grain of truth in this cliché, but only a grain. The key fact about the “Red Wall” – the one thing everyone who refers to the Red Wall ought to realise – is that those seats are only a subset of Labour’s losses in 2019; plenty of other Labour constituencies also elected a Tory. Hence the fifth question, which is:

    • are the “Red Wall” seats typical of the seats Labour needs to win, and the seats we need to retain?

    This last question is crucial. If the answer is Yes, happy days – if we can identify what turned a sizeable number of Red Wall voters off Labour and reverse it, we can win the next election. If the answer is No, things are more difficult; it could be that we need to look elsewhere to reverse the majority of our losses and retain the seats we hold. Come to that, it could be that adopting positions that do play well with the missing Red Wall voters would cost us votes and seats elsewhere, either directly or by demobilising the activists who power Labour’s ground game.

    So let’s look at Labour’s losses more broadly. Labour lost 48 seats in England (along with six each in Scotland and Wales), and here they are. 38 were in Derbyshire and points north:

    The other ten were further south. (Look closely and you can even see Kensington – our only loss in the capital.)

    In line with the previous maps, I’ve divided these lost seats into three groups:

    1. big wins (Labour continuously since 1979, decisive win in 2019)
    2. narrow wins (Labour continuously since 1979, but not a decisive win in 2019)
    3. marginals (had changed hands at least twice since 1979)

    There aren’t any dark grey constituencies on this map; why dwell unnecessarily on the treachery of the renegades Austin, Lewis, Mann, Woodcock, Smith and Williamson? Those six constituencies have been treated as Labour seats and allocated to one of the three groups. (Penistone and Stocksbridge – the seat Angela Smith held under five different party labels before abandoning it in the vain hope of finding somewhere safer – doesn’t strictly belong on the list, as it was created in 2010; however, its main predecessor constituency, Barnsley West and Penistone, had been Labour since 1979.) As before, a “big win” is defined as one where the Labour vote in 2019 fell 10% or more relative to 2017 and was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001, and where the eventual Tory majority was 5% or more; narrow wins are those that qualify on fewer than three of these criteria.

    If we look at these three groups collectively, this (if you’ll pardon the expression) is what we find:

    123
    Lowest Labour vote %, 201924.439.336.9
    Highest Labour vote %, 201939.844.546
    Average Labour vote %, 201934.841.741.1
    Biggest Tory majority in %, 201931.412.615.7
    Biggest drop in Labour vote %, 2017-1924.915.718.1

    Group 2 and group 3 look remarkably similar. What’s more, losses along these lines don’t seem wildly surprising. An aggressive Tory campaign, with a Brexit Party assist, pushes the Labour vote down to the low 40%s or slightly below, enabling them to squeeze out a 5% or even 10% majority in a former Labour seat: it’s bad, but it seems like the kind of thing that could happen in any bad election campaign. And – returning to question 2, above – 2019 was a really bad election campaign. The party’s support had been softened up beforehand by sustained attacks on the leadership from the centre and centre-left, relieved only by a brief truce in 2017 (after it turned out that what they were offering was in fact quite popular). In 2019 Parliamentary stalemate over Brexit was parallelled by internal conflict over Labour’s position on the EU; meanwhile, exaggerated and politicised charges of antisemitism on the left of the party ran riot, to the point where a grotesque and libellous falsehood – the allegation that Corbyn was personally prejudiced against Jews – became common currency, a comedy punchline. The delegitimation of Corbyn and his party culminated in the New Statesman‘s sage eve-of-election advice that readers should do nothing that might risk putting Corbyn into Downing Street, but should instead vote “tactically” to deprive the Tories of a majority (Luciana Berger! Sarah Wollaston!). The mentality is a kind of cargo-cult imitation of tactical voting – you don’t vote tactically for a third party because it’s a credible challenger, you proclaim your vote for a third party is tactical and thereby make it credible. There was a lot of this about in 2019; the combined vote for the Lib Dems and Greens was 50% higher than 2017 (4.5 million from 3 million), for a grand total of one fewer MP. It’s hard to imagine that anyone genuinely, rationally thought it would work. Revisiting the NS article now, I see that it concludes by outlining an alternative “political dispensation”, then concedes that “[t]he election will not open the way for this alternative settlement”. Which is probably the closest thing to a mea culpa we’re ever going to get.

    Tactical non-co-operation from centre parties also ensured that the Labour Party’s great achievement of 2017 – depriving Theresa May of her majority – led to deadlock in Parliament rather than any constructive result; binding votes on an alternative to a hard Brexit were lost for the want of votes from the SNP and (absurdly) Change UK. This in turn played into an equally successful pre-election softening-up campaign from the Right, to the effect that Labour politicians were timewasting obstructionists, doing nothing for their MPs’ salaries but block the will of the people. (I heard this more than once when I was canvassing, in constituencies Labour went on to lose.)

    Pushing Labour’s vote down a few points and the Tories’ vote up by a similar amount was all that was needed to take quite a few constituencies. (And, please, let’s not forget that very little has actually changed when a constituency goes from a 48/45 Labour/Tory split to 44/45 – and not very much has changed when a constituency goes from 50/40 to 42/45.) The attacks I’ve described – peeling off a few % of furious Brexit believers on one side, a few % of earnest centre-leftists on the other – were quite enough to do all of that, particularly when combined with the absurdly permissive media environment in which the Tories were working. And groups 2 and 3 add up to 31 seats, which would have been enough to give the Tories a majority of 40 even if the whole of group 1 had stayed Labour.

    So, is there anything here to explain? Are there any lessons to draw on how to fight the next election? Apart, that is, from the ones we really ought to have drawn already:

    • Lesson for Labour Party representatives: Don’t systematically undermine the leader under whom you’re going to be fighting the next election (even if you think you might do well out of it longer-term). (Also, do question the motives of anyone outside the party who seems to want to help you undermine your leader. This rarely ends well.)
    • Lesson for the Left: Don’t entrust your political legitimacy to some of your most entrenched and unscrupulous enemies. Also, don’t duck difficult questions, and (relatedly) don’t respond to smears with platitudinous reminders that you are, after all, good people who believe in good things (which must mean that the people saying these nasty things are mistaken). Been tried. Doesn’t work.
    • Lesson for the centre-left: Don’t screw your eyes up tight and tell yourself that if you stick to your principles that’s all that matters – and you couldn’t live with yourself if you compromised – and besides it’s not impossible that Labour might lose and the Tories might lose as well (“very, very unlikely” isn’t the same as “impossible”, is it?) Get a grip. How do you think the Left has felt about voting Labour all this time?

    But the time for the second and third of these has probably gone, sadly. Which – on the positive side – should mean that the future is bright: we can stick to pretty much the same policy platform we had before, perhaps slimmed down and reorganised a bit, and – without a constant barrage of attacks from the centre-left, without a relentlessly hostile media environment, and without an unresolved Brexit hanging over us – the next election should be a breeze. Shouldn’t it?

    Ah, but. What about group 1?

    Next: yes, what about the Red Wall?

    In search of the Red Wall (4)

    The story so far: the Red Wall was originally defined (in August 2019) as a contiguous group of Labour seats, mostly in the Northwest of England, whose demographics suggest that they ‘should’ be Conservative. Nobody really went for this definition. It was redefined (in October) to include Labour seats in the Northwest and Yorkshire where the Conservative vote had increased and/or where there was a large majority for Brexit; nobody really went for this one either. A journalist writing in the Spectator then used the term to refer, more impressionistically, to a “block” of solid, long-term Labour seats in the Midlands and the North (some a hundred miles apart), which had somehow turned into winnable Conservative targets by virtue of the popularity of Brexit and the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn. After that, things got a bit silly.

    “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere” – Charles Fort

    In November the Red Wall appeared in the FT. This article suggested that even the Spectator definition had been too restrictive: it refers to the “red wall” of Labour seats in working-class areas of the Midlands, Wales and the North of England. Red because Labour, a wall because… there are a lot of them, in some parts of the UK which aren’t on the Underground? (Cheap shot, I know, but when people talk about “the North” as if it were a single area (“Bolsover, Bishop Auckland and Ashfield”) it does look like metro-provincialism.)

    Then we got – as promised in the previous post – the proof. I once saw a review of a book on ley lines which noted that the book included several different maps, all with alignments of ancient sites duly marked, and concluded that the authors had provided definitive proof that it was possible to draw straight lines on maps. In a similar spirit, here – courtesy of Sebastian Payne and John Burn-Murdoch, the FT‘s indefatigable data guy – is The Red Wall: The Proof.

    They said it couldn’t be done… hang on, they said it shouldn’t be done.

    I can’t argue with that: if one measures a large enough ellipse on a map of Britain, it will contain a lot of different Labour constituencies. And – what actually is potentially interesting – we can see a few contiguous belts of Labour seats. Using the excellent (and free!) MapChart tool, I’ve reverse-engineered Burn-Murdoch’s graphic as follows:

    Not shown: Wales. I don’t know what went on in the Vale of Clwyd, but it’s highly unlikely to be the same thing that went on in Derbyshire, particularly if flags were involved in any way. Also not shown: Blackpool South, which was a Tory target (and is on this map) but didn’t fall within the Burn-Murdoch Ellipse.

    This doesn’t look a lot like James Kanagasooriam’s original Red Wall, for the simple reason that that was defined in terms of the underlying demographics of the constituencies involved; this is defined in terms of the seats being (a) held by Labour (b) quite close together and (c) er, that’s it. At best it’s a map of Conservative targets in the Northwest, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. I want to stress this point before we go any further. Looking at the original Kanagasooriam map and then looking at the seats which actually went to the Tories, we know something we didn’t know before: those six seats had certain demographic characteristics, and it’s possible that in 2019 those characteristics outweighed the cultural and historical factors which had been keeping them Labour. (Although in the other 34 seats on the map – which stayed Labour – that plainly didn’t happen.)

    By contrast, if we look at this map, then look at the seats which went to the Tories, we know… that the Tories won some, perhaps many, of their target seats in the Northwest, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. That’s all it really tells us.

    But let’s do it anyway.

    Red Wall crumbling, am I right or am I right? Andy Burnham, Dennis Skinner, Mary Creagh, your boys took a hell of a beating!

    Well, perhaps. (I’m not saying we didn’t lose all those seats – look at the government’s majority.) But let’s remind ourselves, again, of what we know about the Red Wall, in this iteration of it (which, sadly, is the one that’s stuck) – and what we don’t know. Do we know that these are all Labour seats with “Conservative” demographics? No, we don’t know that. Do we know that they are all socially conservative areas with big majorities for Brexit? No, we don’t. Alternatively, do we know that these are all seats that had been Labour “for generations” (K. Balls) before the Labour vote collapsed in 2019? No, we don’t. Do we know that the Labour vote hit an all-time low in all of these seats in 2019, or that the Tories won them all with a substantial majority? Also no.

    All we know about the purple seats is that they were Labour going into the election; the Tories won them; and they form a belt running across the country – most of it, nearly – at approximately the latitude of Southport. And that third fact, in itself, tells us nothing – let’s face it, everything has to happen somewhere.

    What if we were to distinguish between Labour seats that actually had been Labour for a while – since 1997, say – and those that had been Labour in 1997 but changed hands (twice) since then? Out of the remainder, we could also distinguish between big wins for the Tories and narrow wins, the kind of seat gains that happen in any election when the tide is running strongly in one party’s favour (as, I think we can all agree, it was for the Tories in 2019). Having looked at the data, I’m defining a “big win” as one where the Labour vote in 2019 fell 10% or more relative to 2017 and was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001, and where the eventual Tory majority was 5% or more. Comparing these factors against the (losing) Labour share of the vote, I found that the lowest Labour vote of any constituency in the “narrow win” group (where at most two of these criteria are met) was 39.8% – all the rest had a Labour vote of 40% or above. Conversely, every constituency in the “big win” group (ticking all three boxes) had a Labour vote below 37%. (Some other “big win” seats, outside the Burn-Murdoch ellipse, had higher Labour votes than that, with one – Wolverhampton North East – hitting 39.8%; none reached 40%, though.) This suggested to me that I was on the right track: intuitively – and thinking back to the first post in this series – a seat where 40%+ of people still vote Labour is not one that’s “gone Conservative”.

    So here’s a revised map. The pale lilac constituencies are those Tory gains which had already changed hands twice in the previous twenty years; the mauve ones are the “narrow wins”; and the white one, as before, is the new Speaker. Lastly, the constituencies in dark grey are those Tory gains whose previous MPs, by the time of the election, had left the Labour Party and were campaigning against it, in one case actually calling for a Conservative vote. I don’t know how much weight to give to this – it isn’t a factor one usually has to take into account – but it can’t have done Labour’s chances of holding those seats any good.

    This map looks a bit different from the one above. West of the Pennines – in fact, West of the Derbyshire Dales – Labour’s losses are almost exclusively seats that had been lost and regained by Labour within the last twenty years (Bury North, Burnley) or narrow wins by the Tories (Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyndburn; Bury South, in grey, is also in this group). Again, I’m not saying that Labour didn’t lose all of those seats, or that we haven’t got a mountain to climb next time round. I am saying that a world in which thirty Labour strongholds have suddenly turned into Tory strongholds (say) is a different world, and calls for different strategies, than one where this has only happened in ten Labour strongholds (but the Tories have squeaked a win in another ten, as well as re-taking ten Labour marginals).

    The idea of the Red Wall – as we’ve come to know it – makes a great story: Labour heartland voters, left stranded by the decline in heavy industry and the rise of social liberalism, abandon their decades-long loyalties to vote for the party of Britain and Brexit! But we need to deal with the problem we’ve got, not with a problem that would make more dramatic sense. I’m not saying there were no “Red Wall” seats (in the sense of that label that’s now accepted) in the 2019 election; on the contrary, some seats fit the profile very well. The question is how many there were, and how typical they were – both of the seats Labour lost and of the seats where Labour needs to campaign. The question is, to put it bluntly, whether the true “Red Wall” seats were Labour’s heartland at all – and, if not, whether basing party strategy and policy on the imperative of regaining those seats might do more harm than good.

    I’ll go into this in the next post. For now, here’s another map. Rather than being based on Tory targeting, this one shows all Labour seats in the region going into the 2017 election, including the ones we held. (Plus two – Birkenhead and Nottingham East – that we took back from squatters. Frank Field and Chris Leslie both stood in 2019, under their new colours; relative to 2017, when they held those seats for Labour, their votes dropped by 59.7% and 67.9% respectively. Cheers, guys, nice knowing you.)

    Yes, that Red Wall of Labour constituencies is certainly… well, it’s got some gaps in it now, so there’s that…

    Funny how it’s mostly the big square constituencies that go to the Tories while the small squiggly ones stay Labour, isn’t it?

    One last map: here (below) is London. One loss (courtesy of Tory defector Sam Gyimah and a really disgraceful campaign to portray a divisive third-place candidate as a unifying winner); one seat reclaimed from a squatter (Mike Gapes, whose vote dropped by a magnificent 68.5% compared to 2017); and one gain. (Since the gain is Putney, which hadn’t been Labour since 2005, this offers a partial and belated confirmation for James Kanagasooriam’s original analysis: he’d cited Putney as an example of the kind of seat that the Tories held despite its demographics suggesting it “ought to” be Labour.)

    There are also, of course, an awful lot of small squiggly red holds. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Conservative strategists, and Conservative-leaning commentators like Balls and Kanagasooriam, preferred to concentrate on the wide open spaces of the Northsouth Yorkshire and the East Midlands, and make out that the Tories were winning the seats that really matter. There are – or were – gains to be made up there, of course; there was a Tory majority for the taking, and by God they took it. But if you’re looking for a real Red Wall – if you’re looking for “traditional Labour seats” in “working-class areas”, and plenty of them – look at how, even now, you can go from the Fylde Coast to Saddleworth Moor without setting foot in a Tory constituency, or cross the whole of Greater London (either way, Heathrow to Dagenham or Barnet to Croydon).

    Despite what had happened in the true (and increasingly ironically named) “Red Wall” areas, and despite how disastrous the results were overall, Labour’s starting point after 2019 should have been (in the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax) “WE ATEN’T DEAD”. The big “Red Wall” losses – the purple constituencies – were serious, but they weren’t typical; by treating them as if they were, we ran the risk (at best) of losing momentum and having to run to catch up when people began to mobilise again, at worst of facing in the wrong direction and becoming irrelevant.

    PS On a side-note, I’ve referred a few times to former Labour MPs who stood against Labour in 2019. Here are all of them.

    Name2017 %2019 %
    As TIGAs LDAs Ind
    Luciana Berger79.531.9
    Frank Field76.917.2
    Mike Gapes75.87.3
    Roger Godsiff77.68.1
    Chris Leslie71.53.6
    Gavin Shuker62.49.2
    Angela Smith45.811
    Chuka Umunna68.530.7
    Chris Williamson48.51.4

    Chris Williamson’s performance must be some sort of record for former MPs standing in their own former constituency. Then again, it’s only a drop of 46.9%. In that respect, Roger Godsiff – the only MP actually to be deselected under the Corbyn leadership, trivia fans – leads the pack with a 69.5% plummet in his personal vote; the last two TIGers aren’t far behind, though. Which is worse, Mike Gapes dropping 68.5% of his vote, or Chris Leslie losing 67.9% and his deposit? Either way, those are quite the performances. Even in 1983 – the big shakeup which the ChUKers were surely hoping to emulate – the biggest comparable fall I could find was from 61.5% to 11% (Arthur Lewis, Newham North West). (Labour retook the seat comfortably; nice to see that some things don’t change.)

    On a side-note to the side-note, it’s rather striking that only one of the eight ex-Labour members of Change UK – Angela Smith – had received less than 50% of the vote at the previous election; indeed, only one other (Joan Ryan) had had less than 60%. The role of safe-seat complacency in decisions to defect – not to mention vanity and general Ned Lagg-ery – shouldn’t be understated.

    But we should probably get back to that Red Wall.

    In search of the Red Wall (3)

    The Red Wall, as we’ve seen, was first postulated by James Kanagasooriam in August 2019; he used the phrase to refer to a belt of Labour seats, from the Wirral to Derbyshire, which on demographic factors alone would have gone to the Tories. The Red Wall was a ‘wall’ for three reasons: because the constituencies it contained were geographically contiguous, making it feasible that the same cultural factors applied in multiple different seats; because those seats were Labour and had been for some time; and (crucially) because those demographic factors, more typical of Tory seats, made them more marginal than they looked. In short, quoting my previous post,

    It’s a Wall because it’s vulnerable. (Perhaps “wall” wasn’t the best word to choose.)

    So, what happened next? What happened to the original Red Wall in the December election was – perhaps surprisingly – rather muted:

    Out of 40 seats we lost six and held 34 (the white area is the constituency of Lindsay Hoyle, the new Speaker). What’s more, the six included Bassetlaw and Penistone & Stocksbridge (both of whose MPs had left the Labour Party and were campaigning against it) as well as Warrington South (so solid a brick in the red wall that it had been held by the Tories from 1983 to 1992, and again from 2010 to 2017).

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. What happened next in August – what happened in response to Kanagasooriam’s original thread? On Twitter, at least, nothing much; Matthew Goodwin (for it is he) retweeted Kanagasooriam, but otherwise it was pretty much tumbleweed.

    (Which is to say, there’s only one Tweet mentioning both Labour and a “red wall” from the day after Kanagasooriam’s Tweet to the end of October – and that one’s talking about football.)

    At the beginning of October the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released Every Voter Counts, a report on low-income voters and how to mobilise them written by Claire Ainsley (yes, that one) and Frank Sodeen. That included an acknowledgment to Kanagasooriam (in his day-job at Hanbury Strategy) and this side-note:

    This is all very odd. Kanagasooriam’s original, reasonably straightforward definition of the “red wall” – Labour-held, demographically Conservative-looking, geographically contiguous – has disappeared, in favour of three groups of seats. The first group looks a bit like the first two original criteria (but not the third – Grimsby is over seventy miles East of Wakefield); the other two groups – seats where the Tories put on a lot of votes in 2017 and seats that are solid Labour but very Brexit-y – are new. What’s particularly odd is that this new and improved Red Wall seems to bear no relation to the subject of the report (which never refers to it again). The report includes a list of all the seats where low-income voters outnumber the majority by which the seat was held or gained in 2017 – suggesting that a party that acted on this report would stand to make gains – but there’s very little overlap between the seats in this list and those shaded in red on that original map (and not just because that map only covered the Northwest of England). In any case, there’s no obvious correlation between a high proportion of low-income voters and a propensity to vote for the Conservative Party – or for Brexit (that latter point is made by the report itself).

    But the definition of “red wall” seats was starting to slip, and soon it would slip a lot further. Here’s Katy Balls writing in the 2nd November issue of the Spectator:

    Top tip: if you’re ever planning on touring the Red Wall, don’t go from Bolsover to Ashfield via Bishop Auckland. (Bolsover to Ashfield: 12 miles. Bolsover to Bishop Auckland: 115 miles. If you started from Bolsover and went twelve miles in the other direction from Ashfield, you’d be approaching Sheffield; 115 miles in the other direction from Bishop Auckland and you’d be in Luton.)

    The Red Wall stands for something different here, and something more like its current meaning: it means a block [sic] of solid, long-term Labour seats, in the Midlands and the North [also sic], which have been turned in to winnable Conservative targets by the popularity of Brexit and the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn. Kanagasooriam’s original analysis – informed by economic, demographic and geographical considerations – has been replaced by something almost completely impressionistic: they’re red because they’re Labour; they’re a wall because there’s loads of Labour seats up North, always have been; and they’re winnable now because… well, Brexit, innit. Up North. Plus Corbyn, everyone hates Corbyn – especially up North. There you go.

    Now, Labour did make a net loss of 47 seats in England to the Tories in December 2019, so something clearly happened. But the point is to explain what it was that happened – and I don’t think it can possibly have been that. Apart from anything else, more or less everyone did hate Corbyn, up and down the country – and there was certainly a majority of people in favour of getting Brexit done – so this analysis, if anything, fails to explain why the Tories didn’t make a lot more gains. We’re left to assume that there was (paradoxically) something particularly vulnerable about long-standing Labour seats, especially up North, and then to solve the riddle by plugging in what we think we already know about long-term Labour voters and/or the North. From which, of course, so much has grown.

    But that was just one article, and in the Spectator at that. Things got worse when the FT came on board.

    Next: the proof.

    In search of the Red Wall (2)

    Apart from anything else, what Red Wall?

    Stupid question, right? We all know about the Red Wall! On Twitter you can read that “Boris Johnson’s decision to slash aid to poorest countries was made to appeal to ‘Red Wall’ voters”; that “if [Starmer] exclusively panders to the Red Wall, to the point of excusing homophobia, his support could begin to wane in the party”, and “if [Labour] continue down the road of appeasing red wall voters they are heading for the wilderness”; and that “Labour needs to start talking about Brexit and come up with solutions, even if it pisses the Red Wall off” – although “if enough Remainers had continued to support Labour many red wall/midlands seats would still be Lab”. I only single those out because they were all written within the last hour – and they weren’t the only examples I could have chosen. Everyone knows what the Red Wall is (or was); everyone knows who Red Wall voters are, the issues that matter to them and the policies that appeal to them – at least, everyone knows the issues that get stressed and the policies that get adopted in order to appeal to Red Wall voters (which isn’t necessarily the same thing). You, dear reader, almost certainly know all about the Red Wall yourself.

    And if I set the controls of my handy Tardis for T minus 2 years and asked the April 2019 version of you for your take on the Red Wall, what would you have said? Would you have said that Change UK posed a threat to Labour’s Red Wall, for instance, particularly given that three of the eleven constituencies they squatted were right there in it (two ex-Labour, one ex-Tory)? I’m telling you now, dear reader, no. No, you wouldn’t have. I can say that with some confidence, because I’ve seen what people were saying about Labour and the Red Wall at the time, and it’s this:

    Absolutely nothing, in other words. Before the 14th of August 2019, precisely five Tweets include the phrase “red wall” and the word “Labour”. Two of them refer to actual walls and two to a metaphorical ‘wall’ of politicians. The last one looks more like the current usage, but it’s from 2011 and presumably isn’t connected.

    What changed on the 14th of August 2019? This:

    I won’t import the entire thread (the link should work if you want to read the whole thing). These excerpts should give you the idea.

    The ‘unders’ are constituencies where the results don’t fall according to the factors that seem to determine voting patterns most of the time – which is to say, group-based factors built on individual factors such as social class, level of education, type of employment and ethnicity. More specifically, they’re seats that haven’t gone Tory the way they would have done if those factors had determined the way people voted. And they’re not randomly dotted about the place; they’re clustered. Here’s one such cluster.

    (The other three groups were: Tory seats in the southwest which might be vulnerable to the Lib Dems; Tory seats held by first-time incumbents; and Labour seats in ex-mining areas, specifically south Wales and the North East. Only one seat in the whole of those two groups went to the Tories in 2019 – North-West Durham – so I won’t consider them for the time being.)

    Here’s the first – the original – map of the Red Wall. Just to hammer on this point one more time, what you’re looking at are Labour seats “where the UK Conservative Party has historically [sic], and still is, under-performing”; areas that “vote differently to how you would expect them to demographically”; an “entire stretch [that] shouldn’t be all Labour [on the basis of demographics] but is”.

    There are a couple of odd things about this map. One is that, despite the previous comment, these seats weren’t “all Labour”; the inverted-L-shaped seat halfway across is Cheadle, which not only isn’t but never has been Labour, and was presumably included on the basis of Tory underperformance. The other is that a seat not being shaded in red doesn’t mean it isn’t Labour – on the contrary, it means either that it isn’t Labour or that it’s solidly Labour, Labour by vote and by (typified) demographics.

    There’s your Red Wall, though; that’s what it originally meant. It’s a Wall because they’re contiguous or nearly, and it’s Red because they’re Labour and shouldn’t be. It’s a Wall because it’s vulnerable. (Perhaps “wall” wasn’t the best word to choose.)

    Next: what happened next.

    In search of the Red Wall (1)

    The next few posts are going to include a lot of maps; specifically, constituency maps. By way of introduction and caveat, this post is about misreading constituency maps.

    Political commentators, particularly at the TV news end of the trade, routinely talk about constituencies being “won” and “lost”, or “going” Labour or Conservative. Constituency maps play into this way of thinking, of course. For example, here’s High Peak constituency:

    Here’s High Peak from 1997 to 2010, and again from 2017 to 2019:

    And here’s High Peak from 2010 to 2017, and again (oh noes!) from 2019 to the present:

    The message you get from those images is that everyone, the length and breadth of this large, irregularly shaped tract of land, was Labour during the first two time periods, and that everyone was a Tory in the second two. Or if not everyone, certainly an overwhelming majority – enough people to set the tone firmly and consistently, and to make it chancy to strike up a conversation for anyone who wasn’t on the right team. Some places are like that, admittedly – in the Liverpool Walton constituency in 2019, Labour took 84.7% of the vote – but it’s not the way to bet. In High Peak specifically, 45.4% of the vote went to the Tories in 2017, when Labour won; in 2019, when the Tories won, Labour took 44.8%. Considered as an area where people live, High Peak didn’t in any meaningful sense “go Conservative” in 2019; it wasn’t in any meaningful sense “Labour” from 2017 to 2019. (If the residents of a street between them own nine cats and ten dogs, and a family moves in with two cats, has the street “gone cat”?)

    What is meaningful, of course, is that this area on the map returns one MP to Parliament, elected by a simple plurality – and it elected a Labour MP in 2017 and a Tory in 2019. But I think we should resist the siren call of common sense for a bit longer. We – for values of “we” including political commentators – do tend to talk as if a constituency electing one MP rather than another amounts to a root-and-branch transformation. It’s shorthand at best, an error at worst, and either way it’s helped along by visual aids like constituency maps.

    I don’t think the underlying motivation is just convenience, either. Think of how it feels to win a vote in a meeting: it’s great when 70% or 80% of the room is with you, but there’s a different kind of satisfaction in winning a vote by the narrowest possible margin, right down to 50% plus one. You put the motion, we voted, the motion was carried – that’s the end of it! Let’s move on! This branch (now) supports Jeremy Corbyn/an all-out strike/free broadband, and there’s nothing the opponents of the motion can do about it. Doesn’t matter if the vote was won by a single vote, doesn’t matter if four people who would have voted the other way got to the meeting a minute late and were refused admission; the vote’s been taken, it’s done, and that’s our policy. Boom!

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t get a kick out of those times when we manage to stitch up the Right instead of getting stitched up by them – I’m not a complete spoilsport – let alone that we shouldn’t do it; “but today the struggle” and so forth. But I do think we should be aware of the bad faith involved – or, if this isn’t too meta, that we should be aware that we are aware of the bad faith involved. When we win by pulling strokes, we say we’ve won fair and square; when we focus (or are made to focus) on the strokes we’ve pulled, we say the other side does worse, and anyway it’s time to move on to the next battle. We do know what we’re doing, though – and we get a bit of a kick out of getting away from it.

    Which, getting back to my subject, is also how the “Labour Takes The North” / “Labour’s Strongholds Crumble” stories work, emotionally speaking. We know perfectly well that very little has actually changed when a constituency goes from a 48/45 Labour/Tory split to 44/45; and we know that an electoral system with plurality-based single-member constituencies offers democratic representation only to a minority of voters. We also know (or can find out very easily) that 20 of the 27 general elections since 1918 have given a single party a two- or three-figure majority of MPs, and that three-quarters of the twenty have produced a Conservative majority. All of this suggests that there’s something unsatisfactory about claiming that High Peak “went” Conservative in 2019 – particularly considering that the “defeated” Labour candidate took more votes than the winning candidate in any of the elections from 2001 to 2015. But no – those are the rules, the vote was won fair and square, that’s the end of it! Move on! There’s a sneaking satisfaction in the unfairness of the result, and in the perversity of insisting on treating it as fair and valid – not just for Tories (in this instance), but for anyone who’s got a professional or personal investment in this (freakishly antiquated, absurdly unrepresentative) electoral system.

    So don’t listen – or listen with a large pinch of salt – when you hear that the Tories are making inroads into Labour’s heartlands; or that they’re laying siege to Labour strongholds; or that the Red Wall is crumbling.

    Apart from anything else, what Red Wall?

    Reflection

    10th June 2020

    “Had we introduced lockdown a week earlier we’d have reduced the final death toll by at least half,” [Neil Ferguson] told MPs on the House of Commons science committee. “The measures, given what we knew about the virus then, were warranted. Certainly had we introduced them earlier we’d have seen many fewer deaths.”

    Official figures on Wednesday show the death toll from the virus already stands at 41,128, suggesting that if Ferguson is right, more than 20,000 lives could have been saved by taking more draconian action earlier. …

    Johnson declined to express regret that the government did not act sooner, saying the data is not yet available to make a full assessment.

    23rd December 2020

    Introducing a national lockdown in England one week earlier could have saved more than 20,000 lives during the first wave of coronavirus, a new study has concluded.

    Experts from Imperial College London looked at the transmission of coronavirus across England and how effective restrictions brought in to suppress the virus were. The study said: “Among control measures implemented, only national lockdown brought the reproduction number below 1 consistently; introduced one week earlier it could have reduced first wave deaths from 36,700 to 15,700.”

    A government spokesperson said: “Every death from this virus is a tragedy and our condolences go out to everyone who has lost a loved one. … We have been guided by the advice of scientific experts and our response helped to ensure the NHS was not overwhelmed. As new emerging evidence has come through, we have constantly adapted our approach and have taken swift action to stop its spread.”

    15th March 2021

    “There was a genuine argument in government, which everyone has subsequently denied,” one senior figure tells me, about whether there should be a hard lockdown or a plan to protect only the most vulnerable, and even encourage what was described to me at that time as “some degree of herd immunity”. … real consideration was given to whether suppressing Covid entirely could be counter-productive.

    On 3 March, when the prime minister set out the government’s plan, the focus was on detecting early cases and preventing the spread. But on 12 March, with journalists crammed into the state dining room at No 10, he told the public that the country was facing its worst health crisis in a generation. Anyone with symptoms was told to stay at home for a week. …

    On 13 March, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee concluded the virus was spreading faster than thought. … Then, one official says, everything started to move at “lightning speed”. … On 16 March, the public were told to stop all unnecessary social contact and to work at home if possible.

    9th January 2021

    I’m pretty sure I know where and when I was infected and indeed who passed it on to me. In late March, a day or two before the first lockdown came into effect I walked into York city centre with a bravado that turned out to be hubris. … This was before masks in shops became mandatory and before people really started to wear them. While queueing in Boots I noticed, too late, that the cashier had a nasty cough. I was too embarrassed to leave the line before it was my turn to be served …  She must have known this was a symptom of covid and, for that matter, her store manager must have known it too – she should have been told to self-isolate and supported on full pay. I can’t be 100% sure I got the virus from her, but it seems highly likely. Sometimes I wonder if the elderly woman who was behind me in the queue is still alive.

    6th July 1954

    “But we didn’t feel hardship at all, we believed that tomorrow would be fine and beautiful: a sun red as blood and before us, a great road filled with light, a beautiful garden”.

    The voice of Pin Yin reaches us from that nightfall into which – at what speed in miles per second of the turning world? – our friends and our most certain allies have gone and continue to vanish. If nothing else, civil war will have the best of justifications.

    (Sources: Heather Stewart and Ian Sample (Guardian), Shaun Lintern (Independent), Laura Kuenssberg (BBC), Ed Rooksby (1975-2021), Guy-Ernest Debord.)

    Something really fishy: Oh, Ramona

    Here, then, is what I think is going on in Leon – or Ramona, as it should probably be called; Ramona and Grace in Cyberspace, perhaps. At any rate, here are the lyrics again, corrected (again) and this time with character attributions. I’ve reordered the three “suites” (“Leon takes us outside”/”The enemy is fragile”/”I am with name”) but otherwise left the unknown bootleggers’ handiwork pretty much intact. Reading the observation that “Leon takes us outside” is the only suite with both a start and an ending, I was tempted to reorder the “tracks” more comprehensively, but in the end I decided that the chaotic ending of “I am with name” makes a more fitting conclusion than the dreamy slow fade at the end of “LTUO”. I did move the “Stuck in a Web” monologue down a bit, though, on the basis that we should meet Baby Grace Blue in the outside world before we hear her cyberspace avatar. (Assuming that is who’s speaking at that point, which of course is debatable.)

    Anyway, here’s what I ended up with. Share and enjoy!

    Leon Blank: “25th June, 16th, Wednesday, July 6th, 2001 midwinter, June 6th, Wednesday, August 18th, 9th, 1999, 12th, Michaelmas, August, 13th, October 13th, afternoon, in view of nothing, 2001, Martin Luther King Day, 12th, August 13th, 17th June. 19th January, midwinter”

    Narrator: “First time that I felt your grace, a tear [meaning ‘rip’] ran down my cheek. The first time that I saw the boil – put it on the neck…”

    Nathan Adler: “I never see English anymore. Last time I saw him he was standing by a pile of cantaloupes under the lamplight. I look up at the blood-red sky and I saw the words ‘Ramona A. Stone’ – as sure as you can see the nose on my face, or the graze on my arm, or the boil on my neck, or the foot on my ankle, or the car in my garage, or the wife in my kitchen, or a cloud in the sky, or a cow in a field, or the sun and the moon…. holy sun!”

    Narrator: “We go through the crowd in Oxford town, moving on the sidewalk, faces to the ground. Oxford town…”

    Rock star: “You got a breath-filled crowd here tonight, Eli!”

    Nathan Adler: “Someone once said that beauty is only a deep skin. Why, it’s always been a stone in my flesh, I’ll tell you that for nothing. You’re better off without it. I mean, who eats the hard skin now? It ain’t Ramona A. Stone, that’s for sure. That don’t-wanna bitch is hanging around with cannibals, producing shots of white babies fastened to the arms of blind heifers. All the babies left home and the sky’s made of chrome – a breath-filled sky and it’s made of chrome. It was the night of an OK riot – she swanned along the street with her waving hair and her research grants… Choc-a-bloc babies in the heart, a block of black decay in the room – O what a room it was, what a womb, what a tomb it became! I’d rather be an OK riot; I’d rather be chrome than stay here at home. Don’t go near the bones, Leon can you hear? Get away Julie, don’t go there, there’s really a lot to fear. A breath-filled crowd, they might be super loud. They eat the hard skin, they sit on the lamplight, they’re white and black and loud. I’d rather be sitting on a cloud, I’d rather be eight foot loud, I’d rather be chrome. Well, I’ll bitch slap her home – I’m gonna be chrome! Beauty is a stone! I wanna be chrome!

    Protector: “Friends of the Trust, you’ve been a breath-filled crowd tonight! You’ve been positively fly boys! We are surely on our way upon that superhighway of information. As far I’m concerned, you are all number one packet sniffers! So sing with me. We’ll creep together, you and I, under a bloodless chrome sky. We’ll find the small things, you and I; we’ll just have small friends, you and I; we’ll be small together, you and I. We’ll end together, you and I.”

    Nathan Adler: “Huh! As far as I was concerned, there was always the slime end of the silicone chip biz. It seems that Ramona and Leon had just spiralled down into the cesspool. Like I always say, a person who loses a name feels anxiety descending. But hey, if I heard it right, she was always behaving like some don’t-wanna bitch. She was a well-blind woman, he was a well-intentioned man; this makes for a bad end. As I always said, it would end in chrome. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

    Narrator: “Oh Ramona, can you hear me?”

    Connoisseur: “What are you in terror of? Life needn’t step on baby fingers. The minutes fall, and the daemons find their ways unencumbered, half dead, poisoned by their own fatal art. Each dirty tune produces its own nobility of form; each pays a different piper – a daft pauper. O machine, how did we fail thee? I guess I feel like a machine that cannot be cranked any more. My gadives[?] are broken and bent, like a wall strangled by ivy -”

    Nathan Adler: “I remember a dame called Ivy – drove around in a hearse. Some way south on Oxford Town, near the mosque. Graffiti, cappuccino, you name it – they had it all. Those were the days. In those days everyone was psychopolitical – not the humbug packet sniffers they are now. Take Leon… please!”

    Connoisseur: “The editors have done an excellent job. The selections are generous, the notations are scrupulously scholarly. To believe that the quality of a CD-ROM can be conveyed through translation may seem presumptuous, but I believe the enterprise is greatly successful.”

    Narrator: “This is a magnificent achievement, a major triumph of Wolof music; a truly precious addition to the sum total of Wolof in English.”

    Connoisseur: “The editorial apparatus of this CD-ROM leaves nothing to be desired”

    Narrator: “The editorial apparatus of the CD leaves nothing to be desired. It leaves nothing to be desired!”

    Voices: “Nothing to be desired!”

    Narrator: “Mind changing! Mind changing! Change your mind changing! Stand by!

    Voices: “Nothing to be desired!”

    Narrator: “And there’s nothing to be desired – if not fishy! Nothing to be desired! Nothing! Nothing to be desired! It’s your mind changing!”

    Radio announcer: “In far off California, there is no natural plan. Its mighty branching and its preponderant boughs weigh heavy on a Sontag morning.”

    Baby Grace Blue: “Test, testing, testing. This… Grace is my name. And, and there was… It was a phot… a fading photograph of a patch, a patchwork quilt. And they’ve put me on these… Ramona put me on these interest drugs, so I’m thinking very, too, bit too fast like a brain patch, like I’ve got this… this soul brain patch, and it’s got… I got the shakers on it with this neuro-transmitter. And… they won’t let me see anybody except the breeders in the enclave and the check players, and I can still hear some…. if I want to sometimes and I ask I can still hear some pop… popular musics and aftershocks. And they say what… they say what were… what were you doing? what was I doing when I saw the small friends? And I said that I’ve been watching a television of, a television of Jeffreys In the Press, about the British revolution and something about the second Protector, who was a news coaster in the homelands – yes, the new homelands. And then I recognized the small friends because one of them was a very infamous, and he was a grand visioner, he was the grand visioner, the one who was on a television, who made soul patches the law, and… that’s all I can remember. And now they just want me to be quiet and to worship the lot, and I think something is going to be horrid.”

    Director: “Hello Leon. Would you like something really fishy? I gave up flogging in Oxford. The enemy is fragile! Who has seen this furious man? Who will rid me of this shaking head?”

    Narrator: “It was just a fading photograph, slumped on the black leather sofa, glass fronted, forgotten by the last tenant.”

    Director: “Who will rid me of this shaking head? Who has seen this furious man? The enemy is fragile! But he has no… The enemy has always been here. You could have been fighting to the death, but no! Well, wrap up and we’ll go dancing, Leon! Dance fishing? Something in her mouth. There’s something in her mouth, something mysterious. Between patois and Beckett. I bet it is a speech.”

    Narrator: “Sample techniques, exponents of the greatest Wolof band of the 21st century. Phase techniques, and rich 21st century Spanish incantations.”

    Director: “You are: a permutation! You are: a patois! You are: Chinese poetry! You are: something mysterious! You are: speed through delay! You are: patois and Beckett! You are: fighting to the death! You are: flogging! You are: something really fishy! You are: whispering! You are: warning!”

    Baby Grace Blue: “I think we’re stuck in a web. A sort of… nerve net, as it were; a sort of… nerve Internet, as it were.”

    Voices: “Red dog! Red dog!”

    Baby Grace Blue: “We might be here for quite a long time – here in this web… or Internet, as it were.”

    Voices: “And, and, and red dog!”

    Baby Grace Blue: “Got to get away, get away, got to get away”

    Algeria Touchshriek: “My name is Mr Touchshriek, of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy. I sell ache shells off the she-sores and empty females. I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr Wolof Bomberg, a reject from the world-wide Internet. He is a broken man; I am also a broken man. It will be nice to have company; we could have great conversations. Possibly, just maybe, after a nice cup of tea, from a trip of the tongue we’ll creep together down a memory lane, and then we’ll be young and full of bubbly ambition, instead of the slump males that we are. Looking through windows for daemons, watching the young advancing, all electric… A small shop on the corner is really no more than a dark spiral with no end. I’m in a street behind the Museum of Modern Parts. The buildings are close together, no more than ten feet between one side of the street and the other. There’s not much in the way of daylight, but at least we don’t get the rain, which is a blessing. Some of the houses still have inhabitants in them; I’m not sure if they’re from this country or not. I don’t get to speak much to anyone, or that sort of thing. If I had another broken man – oh, I dream of something like that.”

    Touchshriek (fading): “Not sure if they’re from this country or not…”

    Touchshriek (full volume): “I mean, who am I supposed to be driving?”

    Director: “A snapper with a foetal heart who resents all stupid questions, Ramona A. Stone put her arms around a boy – the golden boy with a lion’s heart, the boy who lives outside, an urchin among immortals. Leon! Lift up your eyes! The very stars are calling! Your name is Leon, Leon is your name! Murder you will do! Leon, lift up your eyes! [repeats with variations and embellishments, rapidly becoming unintelligible]

    Ramona A. Stone: “I am with name, I am Ramona A. Stone. A night fear female, good timing drone.”

    Narrator: “And she should say:”

    Ramona A. Stone: “Twitch and scream, it’ll end in chrome, the night of the female good time drone.”

    Narrator: “And she should say:”

    Nathan Adler: “A person who loses a name feels anxiety descending – left at the crossroads between the centuries, a millennium fetish.”

    Narrator: “And she should say:”

    Ramona A. Stone: “I am with name, I am Ramona A Stone”

    Narrator: “Anxiety descending, anxiety descending…”

    Anxious man: “I won’t eat me, it will hide me, he should take them, I won’t tell it, she can’t take them, it will do less, he said tell it, he said smell this, he should do this, he should be there, she can’t hide me, he said do less, he said tell it, I won’t take them, she can’t eat me, he said kill that! He said take them, he said be there, I won’t kill that, it will be there, she can’t eat me, I won’t hide me, it will tell me, he said hide me, I won’t be there, he said hide me, he said be there, I won’t hide me, they won’t smell this, he should hide me, I won’t kill that, it will take them! They won’t tell it, she can’t be there, they won’t hide me, he should hide me, they won’t hide me, she can’t be there, it will hide me, he should eat me, he should take them, he should take them, I won’t kill that, they won’t be there, they won’t tell it, I won’t take them, I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me! They won’t do less, he said tell it, they won’t take them, it will hide me, it will smell this! They won’t kill that, he should hide me, I won’t hide me, she can’t be there, I won’t tell it, I won’t eat me, they won’t tell it, he should smell this, he said be there, he should kill that, I will take them, they won’t eat me, she can’t eat me, I won’t hide me, they won’t do less, he should eat me, he should hide me! They won’t smell this! She can’t tell it! I won’t be there! He should eat me! He said tell it! Smell this!”

    Nathan Adler: “Old Touchschriek was a domain name server, suspected of being a shoulder surfer or finger hacker. This old guy didn’t know from shit about challenge/response systems – he was way back in the age of cellular clones. We knew that Ramona A. Stone was selling interest drugs and magic cookies; she got males all hung up on her mind filters. She was a router and a swapper – she was, if you don’t mind me saying so, a fuckin’ update daemon. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to when it all began.”

    Ramona A. Stone: “I was Ramona A. Stone. I started with no enemies of my own; I was an artiste in a tunnel. But I’ve been having a MIDI-life crisis and I’ve been dreaming of sleep and apemen with metal parts. I’ve spat upon deeply-felt age – come to my real goddess! I’ve hid my hard skin under a freckham[?] sky. I’ll get the funny-coloured English… Oh… we’ll creep together, you and I. We know who the small friends are. My, this is a crazy world. At this time, you could think of me as a ‘syllannibal’: someone who eats their own words.”

    Lounge singer: “We’ll creep together, you and I. Just a trip of the tongue from a slump male – a mumble slouch unreal… (How many a true remark!) We’ll creep together, you and I. Way back in the Laugh Hotel, I’ll reel out the window…You die for diamonds but you won’t live for love!”

    Leon Blank: “She’s a don’t-wanna bitch, behaves like a don’t-wanna bitch, but she is all I’ve got.”

    Ramona A. Stone: “I am with rose, I am with babies, I am with chrome, I am Ramona A. Stone. It’ll end in chrome. This is the chrome, my friends, the chrome.”

    Nathan Adler: “Then there was nothing left to do but to bring on the Nut Soldiers, round up the packet sniffers and clear up what remained of that sensational mouth. It’s sensational, her mouth – just a little untight. Excuse me while I wax poetic. The ashes that ran, fleshy debris and silicone chip-bits, electrocutes the evil and smells. Thank you. For me, it’s like plain chaos, and I am the fixer.”

    MC: “Thank you very much! Well, you asked for them, so here they are – The Leek Soldiers! Twist, fly boy, brace for me, twist, fly boy, wrecked, flexed, heaven erect, brace for ready, twist, fly boy! Twist hardware, push the ziplock, twist hardware, melt them, wreck them, break through, go for the flare, fly boy!”

    Nathan Adler: “At this time, before you could say boo to the goose, Leon was up on that oh-so-heavy party stage, with a kris-kris machete. He could not wait for 12 o’clock midnight. He slashes around, cuts a zero in everything – I mean, a zero in the fabric of time itself. I says to myself, Whoa! Quelle courage! What nerve!”

    Anxious man: “They won’t kill that it will hide me he should take them I won’t tell it she can’t take them it will do this he said tell it he said smell this he should do less! He should be there she can’t hide me he said do this he said tell it I won’t take them she can’t eat me he said kill that he said take them he should be there! He should do less!”

    Expert: “Some day the Internet may become an information superhighway. Don’t make me laugh! A 19th century railroad that passes through the badlands of the Old West. Someday the Internet may become an information superhighway. Do not make me laugh!”

    Narrator: “It was a great conversation.”

    Comic (with ventriloquist’s dummy): “Hey Bunny, say goodnight” [“Say goodnight”] (repeats with variations)

    Comic: “Hey hey, here we are back at the Laugh Hotel! [“Back at the Laugh Hotel!”]

    Comic: I was sittin’ there at the Laugh Hotel the other night looking for window daemons, when in comes this Leon in a jungle weed, a mumble slouch unreal, maybe a triple-lock, a trip of the tongue from a slump male…”

    Algeria Touchshriek: “I’m Mr. Touchshriek of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy, and I sell ache shells off the she-sore and empty females. I met Leon once. Bit of a dark spiral with no end, I thought. Sunday mail-over with his deeply felt grace.”

    Something really fishy: The chrome

    1. We’ll creep together

    If Leon isn’t about art, flesh and the millennium (as its traces on 1. Outside would suggest), and if it is about something – not just a free-wheeling verbal jam session punctuated by recordings of crowd noise – then… what?

    I’d suggest that the lyrics evoke a number of weird and problematic scenarios, each of which had fascinated Bowie for years at a time and some of which fascinated him now. Picture a charismatic leader, someone who could summon thousands of willing volunteers to fight for him and – just as importantly – hold millions of spectators in passive, fascinated thrall, each one convinced that they had a personal relationship with the great one. (Imagine that, eh?) Picture individuals so powerful, and/or so glamorous and charismatic, that they could bend others to their will without compunction, exploiting and even destroying young, innocent victims. Picture an art scene whose high-status experts and connoisseurs combine impeccable taste with utter creative exhaustion, and whose every innovation comes from the street – from artists and practitioners who have no savoir-faire but have creative energy to burn; imagine the role of fixers and impresarios in a scene like that. (Alternatively, picture a pop scene… Bowie once characterised 1. Outside as a follow-up to “Please, Mr Gravedigger” – and perhaps Leon is the follow-up to “Join the Gang”.) Picture a drug which seems to admit users to another, better, reality, and which progressively occupies their lives and soaks up their will to the point of swallowing them up completely. And picture an individual who gets caught up in the wheels of one, or more than one, of these glittering but brutally exploitative relationships, and whose mind and identity come unglued as a result.

    Got all that? Now, imagine that they’re all the same thing. Imagine that “art scene” and “drug” and “political leader” aren’t quite what those words usually mean, but…

    …the Internet.

    Yes, I know. But bear in mind that the Leon sessions took place in 1994 – the first graphical Web browser was only released that year. Bowie was a very early adopter. And it’s probably fair to say that what he was envisaging was something more like the immersive 3D fantasy of “cyberspace” – some kind of combination of VR/AR, Second Life and Google Earth – than the ubiquitous but stubbornly screen- and text-based medium we now know. There, in cyberspace, new charismatic leaders could recruit devoted followers from around the world, and attract an unlimitedly vast audience of spectators; new art-forms could arise from every inner city on the planet and be instantaneously communicated to the arbiters of taste, or else bypass them and go direct to a world-wide audience; while the experience of cyberspace itself might become a drug like no other. Culture would change; language would change; even the way people think would change, accelerating to match the speed of computing – and perhaps going beyond the capacities of the unaided human brain. Indeed, this world would create untold new opportunities for people to go astray, to lose their minds or throw away their lives – and for unscrupulous people to exploit and debauch the innocent.

    This, I think, is the world of Leon. Here, for example, are the second passage of text in the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, and an extract from the third:

    The first time that I felt your grace, a tear [meaning ‘rip’] ran down my cheek
    The first time that I saw the boil – put it on the neck…

    Last time I saw him he was standing by a pile of canteloupes under the lamplight. I look up at the blood-red sky and I saw the words ‘Ramona A. Stone’. As sure as you can see the nose on my face, or the graze on my arm, or the boil on my neck…

    Setting aside the weird fascination with boils, what’s going on here? When would you put a boil on someone’s neck, and when would a rip run down your cheek? I’m picturing avatar construction, glitching slightly: ‘my’ cheek is the cheek of my Street Fighter, my Second Life skin, my Mii. (1994, ladies and gentlemen.) And when do you see a red sky with writing in it, as clear as the nose on your face? This is Augmented Reality territory, I think – what we’d now (after Pokemon Go) consider a gamification of everyday life. Only without the game, or – apparently – the screen to see it all on, or through. This seems like a massive leap beyond the technology we know, but it’s worth remembering that the technology we know wasn’t a reference point in 1994: smart phones, and tablets with cameras and Internet connectivity, were still a long way off. Instead, the narrative of Leon seems to see cyberspace as something you enter, or jack into, in person – perhaps through drugs, perhaps through some kind of implant like Larry Niven’s drouds (consider Ramona A. Stone’s “MIDI-life crisis”).

    And, as with drugs, you can get into it, or you can get deep into it. I think this is the significance of the ‘blood-red sky’, and the pile of canteloupes for that matter: the speaker is in, but he’s still walking around this world as well. Go deeper – replace AR with VR, give up on the physical world altogether in favour of an immersive, 3D experience of cyberspace – and something else happens to the sky:

    The babies left home
    And the sky’s made of chrome

    We’ll creep together, you and I
    Under a bloodless chrome sky

    From a blood-red sky to a bloodless ‘chrome’ sky – and on to vague but ominous statements such as “this is the chrome” and “it’ll end in chrome”… But why “chrome”?

    2. Leon: a glossary in three parts

    Computing terminology

    NB With few exceptions, these terms do not have these definitions when they are used in Leon.

    challenge/response systems: “An authentication method used to prove the identity of a user logging into the network.” (PC Mag Encyclopedia)
    crawler: “a program that searches for information on the Web … widely used by Web search engines to index all the pages on a site by following the links from page to page” [NB does not appear in Leon; see creep]
    daemon: “a Unix/Linux program that executes in the background ready to perform an operation when required”
    domain name server: a server within the Domain Name System (DNS), “the Internet’s system for converting alphabetic names into numeric IP addresses … a hierarchy of duplicated database servers worldwide”
    finger hacker: someone who acquires passwords, PINs etc by watching the finger movements of people entering them; see shoulder surfer
    information superhighway: “A proposed high-speed communications system that was touted by the Clinton/Gore administration [1993-2000] to enhance education in America in the 21st century … with the explosion of the Web, the Internet became the information superhighway whether it was ready for it or not.”
    MIDI: “a standard protocol for the interchange of musical information between musical instruments, synthesizers and computers”
    packet sniffer: “software that captures packets transmitted in a network for routine inspection and problem detection”
    router: “device that forwards data from one network to another”
    shoulder surfer: someone who “[looks] over someone’s shoulder to obtain passwords, PINs and other security codes being entered”; see finger hacker
    silicone chip: misspelling and/or mispronunciation of “silicon chip”
    swapper: operating system software responsible for “replacing one segment of a program in memory (RAM) with another part of the program and restoring it back to the original if required”
    update daemon: see daemon
    window: delimited area of a computer screen, element of a graphical user interface

    SF terminology

    brain patch: a permanent upgrade to the brain enabling direct access to cyberspace; also soul patch
    chrome: apparently a one-word synonym for immersive cyberspace, seen as a powerful and seductive experience but liable to drain the life of anyone who strayed into it. Evokes William Gibson and possibly Frank Zappa.
    creep: always ‘together’ (the phrase is used by four different characters); apparently a gratifying shared experience of venturing into cyberspace. Possibly an alternative/garbled version of ‘crawl’ (cf. crawler)
    interest drugs: psychotropic drugs tending to accelerate mental processes; used with brain patch and mind filters
    magic cookies: see interest drugs
    mind filters: either synonymous with brain patch, or a semi-permanent intermediate stage between interest drugs and brain patch
    soul patch: see brain patch

    Other (possibly derived from cut-ups/Verbasizer)

    anxiety descending: unclear why anxiety should descend, unless it’s an image of anxiety descending on somebody
    breath-filled crowd: presumably a crowd of people who are present in person rather than having sent their avatars
    don’t-wanna bitch: a reluctant female
    fly boys: probaby a term of approval
    freckham: “I’ve hid my hard skin under a freckham sky”; unknown
    gadives: “I feel like a machine that cannot be cranked any more. My gadives are broken and bent”; unknown
    hard skin: something that may be eaten or hidden; associated with beauty (which Nathan Adler characterises as “a deep skin” and “a stone in my flesh”); possibly a shameful reminder of the body’s physicality(?)
    Laugh Hotel: apparently a venue where art dealers / talent scouts / abusers can pick up fresh talent
    Leek Soldiers: unclear; see Nut Soldiers
    mumble slouch unreal: this phrase is used by two different characters, but the sense and even the wording is uncertain
    Nut Soldiers: unclear; see Leek Soldiers
    OK riot: a riot which is seen as safe(?), possibly because participants are not physically present(?); compare breath-filled crowd
    slump male: an ageing, burnt-out male
    small friends: contacts who facilitate a journey into cyberspace (see creep); possibly avatars of an exploiter who stands to gain from new recruits, possibly autonomous software agents (see daemon)

    3. A cast of thousands

    There’s no way to be sure how many characters there are in Leon. On one run-through, noting down a new character every time I heard a voice I couldn’t be sure I’d heard before, I got up to 28; this didn’t include any ‘chorus’ voices, such as the ones which join in on “Nothing to be desired”, so presumably a really scrupulous count would return a total in the 30s. A more parsimonious accounting – making a few assumptions about continuing characters and relegating those chorus voices to anonymity – gives a figure in the mid-teens; still quite a few, although several only have one appearance or even one line. I should also acknowledge that how some of the characters relate to the storyline is less than clear; sometimes, perhaps, it really was just Bowie having fun doing voices. Here’s what I’ve got, though, listed in order of appearance but with minor characters given separately.

    Major characters

    Leon Blank: a young (performance?) artist who comes to the attention of Ramona A. Stone and begins a relationship with her; he is then enlisted by her (or by the Director) to carry out a killing, or possibly to investigate it or be framed for it (or both).

    Nathan Adler: a private eye; a disjointed and unreliable narrative voice, appearing more than any other character but not saying anything about himself. Offers a disenchanted outsider’s perspective on cyberspace (“the slime end of the silicone-chip biz”); reminiscent of Blade Runner, particularly the original version (with voice-over). (NB Blade Runner also features a character named Leon.)

    Protector: according to Baby Grace Blue, “the second Protector” took power after “the British revolution”; he is also referred to as one of “the small friends” and as “the grand visioner … who made soul patches the law”. This appears to be the same person heard addressing an adoring crowd in upper-class Received Pronunciation, commending them as “number one packet-sniffers” and offering to “creep together” – and “end together” – with them.

    Connoisseur: a voice with the affected tones and high-RP diction of a caricature aesthete or critic; think Brian Sewell.

    Baby Grace Blue: victim of kidnapping by Ramona A. Stone, possibly working on behalf of the Protector. Ramona puts Grace on “interest drugs” and has her record a statement, which Grace ends by anticipating that something “horrid” is going to happen to her. What does happen to Grace is not known, although it appears at one point that she (or her consciousness) is “stuck in a Web”, i.e. permanently uploaded into cyberspace.

    Director: a person who recruits Leon and alternately scolds and encourages him to carry out unspecific acts, possibly including murder. May be Ramona A. Stone herself, but probably an employee or associate.

    Algeria Touchshriek: a shopkeeper (possibly a pimp or procurer), conscious of his advanced age and low physical status as a “slump male” or “broken man”; Cockney accent. Owns a shop close to the Museum of Modern Parts[sic]. May have connections with Ramona A. Stone; claims to have met Leon only once.

    Ramona A. Stone: a former artist, whose works appear to involve babies, turned art world impresario. Also, apparently, a drug dealer and an explorer of cyberspace, possibly involving body modification (cf. Orlan, Kevin Warwick). Named by six characters, herself included. By the endit appears that Ramona‘s physical body has been dismembered; her voice continues to appear, and on one occasion refers to herself in the past tense (“I was Ramona A. Stone”), suggesting that Ramona has been uploaded into cyberspace.

    Anxious man: a man in the throes of a mental breakdown, apparently triggered by being asked to do, and/or being threatened with, something unbearable (“I won’t hide me, they won’t smell this, he should hide me, I won’t kill that”…). Possibly Leon(?).

    Minor characters

    With the exception of the first, each of these voices only appears once; they can be considered as a collective Chorus, helping establish the Leon universe by highlighting details and/or reiterating comments by main characters.

    Narrator: a default category for appearances by Bowie using an unaffected singing voice or his own “David Jones” speaking voice.

    Rock star: American accent.

    Radio announcer: American accent.

    Lounge singer: sings a version of “We’ll creep together”.

    MC: introduces the Leek Soldiers.

    Expert: comments (in a German accent) on the Internet as an information superhighway.

    Stand-up comic: does a fast-talking but unfunny ventriloquist routine followed by some fast-talking but unfunny verbal comedy. American accent.

    4. Who’s there?

    So – finally – what happens in Leon, and who does it happen to? It’s not – like 1. Outside – the story of the ritual art-murder of Baby Grace Blue, although it seems unlikely that Grace is alive and well by the end of the story. There’s no Minotaur, for a start – no death-crazed sadistic artist – and only a passing suggestion of pre-millennial psychosis. It’s the story of a world where fleshly bodies and physical presence are strictly optional, generating equal and opposite fascinations with transcending the physical body and with fleshy physicality itself (the babies, the hard skin, the breath-filled crowdthe breeders in the enclave, that sensational mouth). Primarily it’s the story of Ramona A. Stone, artist of human physicality, cybernaut, psychonaut, impresario and recruiter, variously seen making art with (or from) babies and their mothers, wading into a riot “with her waving hair and her research grants”, and disappearing into cyberspace so completely that even her body is reduced to ash. But it’s also about Leon, who may or may not have done something terrible, and may or may not have been driven mad as a result; about the ‘small friends’ who lure Baby Grace Blue (and others) into cyberspace, one of whom appears (just by the way) to be the charismatic dictator of Britain; and about the joys of “creeping together”, for everyone from that dictator’s followers to “slump male” Touchshriek. It’s a story of art, and drugs, and death, and madness, and sexual exploitation, and political Supermen – all fictionalised through the master-trope of cyberspace. Short of including the Compuserve address for the Free Tibet campaign, it couldn’t be much more on-brand for Bowie, or much more on-trend for 1994.

    There were problems with it, though. It wasn’t an album, not as such (a stipulation which has all the more force if we remember that the 70 minutes we can hear stands in for 30+ hours of tape). Musically it sounds loose and unfinished – it sounds like a series of jams, in fact, which is of course what it is. Some of them sound pretty good, but none of them is really ready to go as a song (although a couple of the instrumental pieces would work as they stand). And lyrically it’s – not to put too fine a point on it – weird as hell. The manifold loose ends (what did happen to Baby Grace? why is that man having a breakdown?) aren’t the problem; if anything the problem is the reverse, the coherence of the world-building. We’ve got a whole fictional world here, with its own politics, its own artforms, its own language and – in particular – its own voices. We’re ushered “outside” by Leon Blank, mumbling an incomprehensible series of dates; then there’s a single verse sung in Bowie’s familiar voice, but on inspection that’s incomprehensible too. From then on we’re very largely in the hands of Nathan Adler, who speaks and sings in an unprepossessing growl reminiscent of the Residents and – despite his gumshoe stylings and verbal tics like “as I always said” – plainly isn’t speaking contemporary American English. Outside? We’re inside; the door’s swung shut and locked us into an alien world for the next seventy minutes. Happy landings!

    Bowie had only ventured into concept-album territory twice before, with Diamond Dogs and before that with Ziggy. Both involve building a science-fictional world, but neither of them has anything like this all-enveloping quality; in fact, both albums are extremely loose, apparently by design. “Dodo” and “Alternative Candidate” – cut from Diamond Dogs – plainly belong on that album, which you couldn’t say of “Rock’n’roll with me” or “Rebel Rebel”; it’s not hard to imagine a Young Americans version of “RNRWM”. (Just as the non-album “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head” are pure Ziggy Stardust songs – unlike “Moonage Daydream” (written for Arnold Corns) and “It ain’t easy” (a cover which Bowie used to sing with his mates).) And this was very much the approach that Bowie would eventually take with 1. Outside – there was a concept, but there were also some banging tunes, and then there was some other stuff that he was into at the time. Which made life more interesting for Bowie himself (who got bored very easily) and it also made the whole thing more commercial – so really, everyone was happy. It meant that the Leon tapes got left behind and forgotten, but who cared about that? (Who knew about that?)

    So Leon was a one-off: despite his fondness for characters and voices, Bowie had never done anything like this before, and never really would again. It was a curiosity – and, at least in its time, an unreleasable curiosity. But what a curiosity!

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