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.

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