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”.

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