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?

    One Comment

    1. Metatone
      Posted 19 April 2021 at 17:29 | Permalink | Reply

      Since, for my sins I know a lot more about Don Valley than a multitude of the people choosing to analyse it, I’ll note that the size of the anti-system vote there at least (and I suspect in some of the other seats) relates directly to a long history of a Labour council falling into complacency (and in Doncaster, corruption.)

      Worth noting as well that in Don Valley, UKIP and the BNP always campaigned as “far right but with social policies” when you look at the leaflets they put out locally. (i.e. more spending in general). There’s a really interesting thing where you can find people who voted Tory in 2019 actually believing that the Conservatives will increase spending on the NHS, on the area, etc.

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