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?

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