The election of 2019 and the political climate surrounding it now feel like relics of a different age. But one of the key elements of those distant weeks has stuck around: the concept of the red wall, a byword for the post-industrial places in the Midlands, the north of England and north Wales that were once solidly loyal to Labour but now have new Conservative MPs.
In the Guardian, Keir Starmer’s speech to Labour’s virtual conference was framed as urging “red-wall voters to ‘take another look at Labour’”. Last week, protests by north-east Tory MPs about Covid restrictions were characterised as a “red wall revolt”, while government plans to abolish district councils boiled down to an attempt to “shore up the red wall”.
For anyone curious about our new politics, there is the pollster Deborah Mattinson’s recent book Beyond the Red Wall, the fascinating story of encounters with voters in three such places.
Starmer and his people may be determined to revive Labour’s bond with these areas, but elsewhere on the political left, there is unease about the red wall’s sudden centrality. In some people’s view, Labour’s new attempt to begin a conversation with voters there by emphasising family and patriotism – themes Starmer returned to in Sunday’s interview with the Observer – risks “pandering”. There are suggestions that some former Labour heartlands are so reactionary that progressive politics should simply accept their loss and move on. These views reflect a received wisdom in our politics since the referendum of 2016: the idea of an England supposedly split clean in two.
We all know the drill by now. Urban places are held to be liberal, future-facing and welcoming of immigration and cultural diversity. By contrast, the red wall and provincial England are supposedly authoritarian, nostalgic, monocultural and bigoted. This perhaps handily positions a sizable share of the country to the Tory side of a culture war, which recent reports suggest will be based around everything from alleged BBC bias to trans rights, to shipping asylum seekers around the world.
Such provocations may demonstrate that politics has irrevocably changed, and voters have permanently realigned – and if that’s true, Starmer’s efforts to calm things down and appeal to people on either side of an unbridgeable divide will probably be doomed.
Yet, as the old David Bowie song goes, this is not America, and the red wall is far from a Trumpian redoubt of hard-right politics. Its new relationship with Boris Johnson’s Tory party feels tentative and provisional, as was evident in plenty of the conversations I had with Labour-Conservative switchers last December and embodied by an exchange with a man in Stoke-on-Trent who had just backed the Tories for the first time in his life, just before the polls closed. How did it feel, I wondered. His face screwed into a grimace. “Not good,” he said.
People had – and still have – a sense of the Labour party being distant and condescending (Mattinson’s book captures people in red-wall constituencies seeing Labour as a party of “naive and idealistic middle-class students … arrogant kids boasting degrees but lacking life experience”), and biting disdain for Jeremy Corbyn. And when it came to Brexit, there was also a moral sense of an agreement that had not been honoured. “We voted three years ago, and it’s still not happened,” a man in the Nottinghamshire former mining town of Worksop told me. His wife then chipped in: “What’s the point in having a democratic country if they’re not going to listen to the word of the voters?”
Told to make a choice, people had done so, and then watched as the winning option failed to materialise. Such was the incisive appeal of “Get Brexit done”: the fact that someone heeded the call does not automatically put them in the same ethical and political category as, say, Nigel Farage.
Red-wall areas are not really the hidebound, reactionary places of some people’s imagination. Many large places there – Walsall, Wolverhampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Bolton, Bury – are diverse and, in their own way, quintessentially modern. As they do everywhere else, attitudes in such places vary according to age, but the liberalising transformations that have changed society – on race, gender and sexuality – since the 1960s are often clear, even among people others might see as being stuck in the past. As Sunder Katwala, the director of the thinktank British Future, puts it: “The social conservatives of 2020 are probably as or more liberal as the social liberals of 1990.” Whatever has happened recently in the red wall, he warns against interpreting it as a backlash “against modern life and all of the gains of social liberalism in the last half-century”.
Yes, people in such places voice anxieties and resentments about immigration and the benefits system. These views clearly fed into the vote to leave the EU and some people’s recent support for the Conservatives, and they can sometimes be ugly and nasty. But these opinions are often impossible to disentangle from such on-the-ground issues as housing shortages and pitiful work opportunities. This is not to deny the existence of straight-up racism and other prejudices; the point is that most human beings are more open and accepting than they are often given credit for, and focused on the daily grind rather than furores that might be convulsing social media.
A recent quote on the Vice website from a newly elected Tory MP speaks volumes: “There’s an interesting view by some within the party that red-wall seats will automatically not be as pro-LGBT. That’s nonsense. People in red-wall seats in general just want to be allowed to get on and live their damn lives … and they want everyone else to live their lives freely.”
On the other side of England’s divide, cities are equally full of nuance. It is worth remembering that in the 2016 referendum, a third of Asian voters supported leave (among black voters, the figure was 27%). Three-quarters of people who belong to an ethnic minority say they have a strong British identity (a trait they share with white non-graduates, and which is less prevalent among white left-leaning graduates). It is easy to ignore the social conservatism of many black and Asian voters, and the fact that some of them may be as open to certain narratives about family and country as white people.
Everywhere, complexities abound. When I was a reporter, the first interviewee I ever recorded talking about latter-day immigration “opening the floodgates” was a senior Muslim community figure in Leicester. In the buildup to the referendum, the place that convinced me leave might win was Handsworth in Birmingham, where South Asian businesspeople talked about voting for Brexit in terms of national and personal self-reliance. Of course, there was no implication of any affinity with the nativist right. But again, what people said highlighted the fact that values and attitudes are more mixed up than some accounts of stark, binary divisions suggest.
Given that basic fact, it should not be hard to conceive of a left-leaning politics that begins to speak to people on the various sides of our national divides, not least after the pandemic has so vividly exposed Britain’s deep social and economic inequalities, and the decades wasted by leaving them unchecked. The red wall is not lost to the Tories, nor as distant from the rest of the country as we might think. If we want rid of this grim government, moreover, our estrangements and divisions demand not to be accepted, but healed.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist