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Why Brexit will determine Boris Johnson’s success in Red Wall constituencies

Prime minister Boris Johnson on the 2019 general election trail - Credit: PA

For her new book, DEBORAH MATTINSON has been talking to voters in Red Wall constituencies. Her research underlines how Brexit remains a totemic issue there.

Voters in the Red Wall, in common with voters pretty much everywhere, tend not to follow politics very closely. I once ran a focus group live on TV where one participant thought Nigel Farage was a Lib Dem. On another occasion, half the group failed to correctly identify the PM (David Cameron at the time) after being shown a photograph. And it’s not at all unusual to be unable to name a single member of the cabinet.

Voters do know one thing, though: politicians are a breed apart. Whatever the party, their ‘otherness’ is the thing that unites them. As such, they are thought to have little idea of how the people they purport to represent actually live.

A survey by my consultancy, BritainThinks, found that just 6% agreed that UK politicians ‘understand people like me’. Red Wallers, who believe themselves (with good reason, frankly) to be particularly neglected and ignored by Westminster, have switched off from politics more than most. Quite simply, their votes, gifted unconditionally to Labour for so long, had seemed to count for very little.

However, there’s an exception to this rule: one political moment that stands out as different and deeply significant for Red Wall constituents: Brexit. Although often not mentioned at first in the interviews and focus groups that I conducted for my new book, Beyond the Red Wall, Brexit would quickly surface in discussion and go on to be debated with huge enthusiasm, even by those – around a third in the Red Wall – who had voted Remain.

At the very least, it was seen as a ‘circuit breaker’, forcing a much-needed step change . “It’ll shake things up, and goodness knows we need that,” observed one Red Waller. Another told me that Brexit meant “a new start for the whole country, and a new start round here, too”.

For many, Brexit was to be an antidote to the many wrongs they had been quick to identify locally, nationally and internationally. Expectations were set high. Ken, a retired butcher in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, told me that, for the first time in ages, he felt optimistic about his grandchildren’s future: “We used to have the best of engineering, agriculture and fishing. And now that we can set our own rules, we will again,” he asserted. The decline of British manufacturing weighed heavily: “This area used to be known for its weaving sheds and now there aren’t any at all.”

He shook his head, sadly. I asked him how this was the EU’s fault. He admitted to being a little unsure of exactly how, but still felt certain that Brexit offered the corrective that the country needed and that was enough 
for him, for now.

I heard views like Ken’s again and again. Michelle from Accrington also believed that leaving the EU would revitalise Britain’s manufacturing industry and bring back jobs. She felt it would be good for agriculture too, and asked me if I knew where the milk in the tea she had made me came from. “No. Where?” I asked. “Holland,” she told me, pausing for effect. “Yes, Holland! And it’s not as if we don’t have cows round here!” And that, she thought, was about to change.

People I spoke to were exhilarated by the promise of what was to come. I was reminded of a focus group with Leave voters the week after the referendum.

One man told me how, when he woke up to find that Britain had “gone Brexit”, he had leapt out of bed and run in circles round and round his bedroom, punching the air with joy.

“I felt like England had won the World Cup,” he explained. But there was something else going on too. He told me he had enjoyed “sticking two fingers up to ‘them’”. Who were ‘they’ I asked? The ‘elites’, he answered, nodding as if this was a matter of fact.

This response was echoed around the Red Wall. Neglected and ignored for decades, many felt judged and looked down on by those in charge – especially the Labour party. Yvonne in Darlington was angry: “They started attacking people like me and calling us ignorant and ill-educated. It was paternalism: we know best. I was so upset and angry and hurt about that.”

Brexit had been Boris Johnson’s electoral trump card. He had, I was told, “de-snobbified” the Tories, giving die-hard Labour loyalists license to break the habit of a lifetime. By seeming to share their beliefs, instead of sneering at them, he had demonstrated more solidarity than Labour had shown in years.

As well as apparently tackling immigration, Brexit embraced something else that Red Wallers held dear: patriotism. Some believed that Johnson would “put the ‘Great’ back in Great Britain” using Brexit to seize the moment, creating a step change that would rebalance the country, redirecting power and resources back to their particular corner of it.

Even those more cautiously inclined, including many who had voted Remain, felt grateful for the more modest claim of ‘getting Brexit done’.

All were tired of the debate and willing politicians to concentrate on the things that mattered most to them. I had invited focus groups to recreate the famous Trump slogan, filling in the gap in “Make Britain ___ again”. ‘Normal’ was the most popular response.

Just before sending the manuscript for Beyond the Red Wall off to the publishers, I returned to some of my Red Wall interviewees. Covid-19 had struck, and the country had been in lockdown for several weeks. Given that, I asked them, were they sure that we should still ‘get Brexit done’?

Their answers were unequivocal. Ian, a plumber from Accrington was clear: “If Brexit were dropped now I’d be disappointed. I’d think that the elite had wriggled out of it again.” I pressed him – would that hold true even given the possibility of leaving with no deal? Ian – in common with every other Leave voter – and many of the Remainers that I spoke to – was sure. He spoke for them, when he asserted: “We just have to get on with it now and start making our own way in the world.” Politics may have often seemed to make little difference to their lives, but the Red Wall has staked much on Brexit’s outcome and are watching it very carefully indeed.

  • Deborah Mattinson is founder director of research and strategy consultancy BritainThinks; her book, Beyond the Red Wall, is published by Biteback

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