The myth of the red wall
The red wall was a patronising generalisation about a huge swathe of the country
Many things set my teeth on edge during the 2019 election campaign. In this I suspect I was not alone, but leaving aside all the more overtly political and media things that irritated, depressed and alienated me there was one particular concept that bothered me on an analytical level. This was the so-called ‘Red Wall’. Until the 2019 campaign, ‘Red Wall’ conjured up fond memories of a very good hotel in Beijing within walking distance of Tiananmen Square, a refuge of calm and comfort in a very hectic city. During the election, the term was suddenly deployed to describe… what exactly? It seemed to mean the band of Labour-held constituencies between somewhere around Prestatyn in the west to either Hull or Tynemouth in the east, which most of us were quite happy to call ‘urban northern England’ before the ‘Red Wall’ was discovered. The concept seemed, to this observer, to be reverse-engineered from a graphic designer’s idea of an election-night gimmick in which a big blue wrecking ball smashed into a red wall. But the wall never existed.
The mythical wall was a way of making a patronising generalisation about a huge swathe of England (and a corner of Wales). It reminded me a bit of something the late Professor Norman Stone – whose company I enjoyed far more than I really should have done – once told me. A posh, southern English student once said that she admired the way he had gone from a poor background in Glasgow to his academic success. Norman laughed his gravelly, whisky and cigarettes laugh and growled that he hadn’t had the heart to tell her that his parents were reasonably well-off professional people who lived in a nice house in the west of Glasgow. Just as the naïve student equated having a strong Glasgow accent with being born in the slums, the Red Wall erases the fact that urban northern England isn’t all the same.
If you want to say that the Conservatives demolished the Red Wall I suppose you can, but it is more interesting to think about the differences between the seats when you look at the northern Labour constituencies that turned blue in 2019. There were several different things going on, and thinking of them as being a single demolished structure is misleading. There are two broad categories, but the detail will take a long time to untangle.
The bellwethers that swung (at last)
A large proportion of the ‘Red Wall’ seats that flipped to the Tories last week are in fact nothing more than traditional marginal seats that had resisted the tide to the Conservatives in the last few elections. Most of them are pretty close to the national average on demographic indicators, housing, education, work and so on, and have a range of communities from the prosperous to the severely deprived. The anomaly in these seats was less the Conservative win this time, and rather more the failure to switch to the Tories in 2010 and 2015 as they had done on most previous occasions when there had been a change of government. A combination of long-term political drift and perhaps something about the limits of the appeal of David Cameron’s Conservatism had kept them on the Labour side despite the national change in power. The 2017 benchmark, with the Tories winning the national vote by only 2.5 percentage points, the narrowest win by anyone since February 1974, produced a few Labour gains that not surprisingly went under again when the Tories expanded their lead to 12 percentage points.
Let’s take Bury North, for instance. The seat and its predecessor have only voted twice since 1955 for the party that has not won the popular vote (1979 and 2017) so it is hardly a shock that it went Conservative when the Tories were getting a significant national lead in 2019. Places such as Bury South, Bolton North East, Colne Valley, High Peak, Vale of Clwyd, Keighley, Lincoln and Stockton South were all Conservative seats in 1992 and most of them were in 2015 as well. Darlington and Hyndburn, which were last Tory in 1987, the last time that the party won a double-digit victory, belong in this company. Although there are a couple of arguable cases, I reckon 20 of the Conservative gains in the imaginary wall were in the ‘perennial marginal’ or ‘marginal disguised by the fact that the Tories haven’t won an election comfortably since 1987’ category.
If Labour gets its act together, many of these seats (or their successors after boundary changes) will be straightforward targets in the next election – there is no demographic destiny that will keep them Tory. A one-point swing to Labour would see four of them flip back, and a swing of 5 per cent would return them all to the red column. The damage to this section of the ‘wall’ seems very feasible to repair.
Not even all the traditional marginals in northern England changed colour – a few seats which had been Conservative in 1992 or 2010, such as Batley & Spen, City of Chester and Weaver Vale all stuck with Labour in 2019, as did Halifax where Labour has won all the time since 1987 but seldom by comfortable margins. Merseyside is, as it often is, a bit of a special case – the ‘wall’ remained intact in the plush suburbs of Wirral. The more metropolitan former marginals such as those in north Leeds were not even close.
Mines and Potteries
The electoral history of some of the other seats in this imaginary wall is very different, and it is justified to use the image of something once sturdy and resilient which collapsed in 2019. These are the former mining seats and single industry towns along the line where the Midlands meets the North, from Wrexham just over the Welsh border to the Stoke-on-Trent area and across to the working class ex-mining rural areas of Bassetlaw and Don Valley and thence to Grimsby. These seats can genuinely boast long Labour histories, and their Conservative winners are the first Tories to represent them since 1945, or 1935, or even 1922. There are 20 of these seats by my reckoning including fabled former strongholds like Bolsover, Stoke Central and Ashfield.
Labour’s problems in the bulk of these seats are more deeply rooted than in the marginals. Unlike the marginals, many of them showed quite strong movements to the Tories in 2017 as well, meaning that the cumulative swing over the last few elections has been large and remorseless. While Bury North has swung by 3.5 per cent to the Tories since the last national Labour victory in 2005, Durham North West has swung by 20 per cent; in Leigh and Rother Valley the swing has been 25 per cent, a mind-boggling movement of opinion.
Once long-standing patterns have been broken like this, the seats are never the same again. We need only look a little further south to see what the future might hold for the likes of Bassetlaw and Rother Valley. Midlands seats like Cannock Chase, Nuneaton, South Derbyshire and North West Leicestershire (or their predecessors) used to be reliably Labour until the 1970s but then veered towards the Tories. Labour could recapture them if the Conservatives alienated them by the poll tax and pit closures (1992) or when winning a national landslide, but the tide was ebbing. Labour regarded these seats as reasonable targets after the 1987 election but they are now all Tory strongholds with majorities of around 20,000. One can see the same process happening in similar seats the Tories gained in 2017: the Tory share in Stoke-on-Trent South was 62.2 per cent in 2019, slightly higher than in the prosperous rural and commuter constituency of Hampshire North West.
Labour might be able to win back some of these 2017/19 losses, perhaps on violent swings when the Tories are nationally unpopular, but even so they will be leasehold rather than freehold. There are a few more seats in the same category that saw large swings and perilously eroded Labour majorities in 2019 – Makerfield and Hemsworth for instance – which barring a national swing could well be carried into the blue column next time. Perversely, these may be more promising for the Conservatives over the long term than seats such as Wrexham and Wakefield which, despite their long Labour histories, have always had major-party battles and a significant Tory vote but have changed less in terms of economic base and cultural attitudes than the rural ex-mining hinterland.
So what is my conclusion? The Conservatives have made a real breakthrough in working class northern seats, but the extent of it is exaggerated by the loosely-defined Red Wall lumping in a load of traditional marginal seats as well as left-behind towns and former mining country. Some of these places also, at least in local elections, have rapid cycles of enthusiasm and disillusion for large and small parties and independents of various stripes – Stoke-on-Trent municipal politics has been chaotic for well over a decade. The medium term politics of these places could be strange, and possibly not very closely related to whether the government delivers – we seem in a political environment where policy failures that keep voters poor and angry are not necessarily punished and achievements are not necessarily rewarded. But in the long term, it does seem that the small towns of the Midlands and even parts of the North will vote Tory like similar areas in the South – even as Southern cities start voting Labour like their Northern cousins.
It doesn’t look much like a wall really: the messy truth about the ‘red wall’ gains
Dark blue – Con hold in 2019 (includes some ex-mining gains in 2017 and marginals held since 2010);
Light blue – Con gains in marginal seats in 2019;
Purple – Con breakthrough gains in 2019;
Orange – Lab holds in seats with recent marginal status;
Red – other Lab holds.
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