OPINION21 October 2020

Reflections from ‘red wall’ voters

Brexit Covid-19 Election 2019 Opinion Public Sector UK

The tools of the research trade are essential for political parties to reconnect with once-forgotten voters. By Deborah Mattinson.

aerial view of British street

Usually, I pride myself on my performance in the BritainThinks’ election sweepstake but, on 12th December 2019, I stared, astonished, at my TV, as the exit poll landed.

Although bang on with the Tory vote share, I had woefully underestimated the scale of Labour’s defeat – down by nearly 8%. It was the party’s worst performance since 1935: it must now win 124 seats to achieve a majority of just one. But the biggest upset on a generally miserable night for Labour was its defeat in many so-called ‘red wall’ seats: working-class industrial towns in the midlands and the north that were once its spiritual home.

I reflected uncomfortably that, in years advising Labour, I had never conducted a focus group in any of these places. Put simply, they had been taken for granted. The Tories hadn’t bothered with them much either, concluding these Labour strongholds were unwinnable. In short, nearly five million people had been ignored by the entire political class for decades.

I set out to understand what had happened using focus groups, ethnographic interviews, and a citizens’ jury. Early 2020 found me listening to people in hotel rooms and community centres and watching them go about their lives from the bird’s eye view of their kitchen tables.

I chatted to people like Michelle, the owner of a ‘butty shop’ in Accrington; Bob, from Darlington, who became a decorator and handyman after being laid off in his job as a shift manager in a freezer component factory; Ken, a retired butcher turned caravan club enthusiast from Oswaldtwistle, and Julie, a carer from Stoke who works six days a week at three different jobs before spending her day off caring for her elderly grandpa. Everyone I met was hard working, committed to their local community, proud, patriotic and often stoical.

So, my book, ‘Beyond the Red Wall’, was born. I focused on three constituencies – Stoke Central, famous for its potteries, Hyndburn in Lancashire, once known for the ‘nori’ bricks, used to build the foundations of the Empire State Building – and Darlington, home to Britain’s railway network.

These towns have much in common: all boast a proud past but now face an increasingly uncertain future. Everywhere had suffered years of neglect. Resentment towards the south was heartfelt and raw.

Bob from Darlington told me: “The north generates money and it all goes down to London. We create, we need it, but they get it… then they have the nerve to tell us what to do.”

Ian from Hyndburn said: “You could draw a line right across the middle of Britain. The bottom half is the ‘haves’ and the top half is the ‘have nots’.”

Many endured difficult lives, and all agreed that politicians had forgotten about them, standing by while their places decayed. Too often their MP was parachuted in, disappeared off to Westminster and never looked back, making only occasional visits for the odd surgery or, of course, elections. The earthquake had been a long time coming.

A perfect storm had enabled the Tories to defy decades of ingrained voting patterns. Labour seemed to be cheerleaders for a snooty metropolitan elite that looked down its nose at the ‘red wallers’ and the things they held dear. Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit were not the cause, but certainly turbo-charged the problem. 

When I asked why the Tories had won, the knee-jerk response was usually a tirade of criticism of Labour. However, the Tories had one major advantage: Boris Johnson himself. Many ‘red wallers’ credited him with pulling off the awesome task of what one interviewee described as ‘de-snobbifying’ the Tories. In doing so, he gifted voters the licence to change the habit of a lifetime.

The bar is now set high for the Tories’ levelling up programme but expectations of a better deal for the ‘red wall’ seem in jeopardy as, hit harder by Covid-19, Westminster now attempts to impose punitive lockdowns. As a participant in BritainThinks’s coronavirus diaries project wrote: “If tier three lockdown happens, I don’t think the north will recover for a very long time.”

What happens next is hard to predict. The once impregnable ‘red wall’ is not a shoo-in for either major party. Keir Starmer has made a good start but must persuade voters that he has dragged his party with him, while disappointment with Johnson is palpable. As one participant commented: “We voted for bold and we’ve ended up with waffle.”

One thing is clear, though: these voters are now flexing their political muscle and expect to be wooed. Meanwhile the tools of our trade – qualitative, quantitative and deliberative methods – have a vital role to play in reconnecting political parties, policy makers and marketeers with this once-forgotten group of people who will be centre stage for some time to come.

Deborah Mattinson is founding partner at BritainThinks. Her book, ‘Beyond the Red Wall’, is published by Biteback