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The Tories’ Red Wall will crumble without solid foundations

NEW BATTLEGROUND: The once Labour northern heartlands like Blyth, pictured, are Tory now, but can Johnson really keep them? Photo: Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The Conservatives’ grip on the northern and Midlands seats they took from Labour has weakened since the election, says ANTHONY CLAVANE

At 11.31pm on December 12, 2019, a new political landscape came into being. The returning officer for the former mining community of Blyth Valley announced an unexpected breach in Labour’s ‘red wall’ as Ian Levy became the first Conservative MP in the constituency’s 69-year history. The following morning Boris Johnson promised he would use his 80-seat Commons majority to ‘level up’ opportunities between the north and the south.

This week these two buzz phrases – red wall and levelling up – have once again been doing the rounds as the government attempts to regain the initiative and outline its plans for economic recovery. Johnson clearly hopes this his strategy will also allow him to recover his party’s grip on its key battleground seats in the north and the Midlands. A new dawn is upon us, apparently, with his trailblazer projects all set to deliver the economic security his ‘new working-class base’ craves.

This latest attempt to seize back control of the narrative has been met with a certain degree of scepticism in the former industrial heartlands. Announcing policies to reward the voters who put him in power is one thing. Delivering them quite another.

Johnson is being presumptuous in proclaiming the red wall of Labour seats his party won is now a ‘blue wall’. True, last December the Tories overturned decades of family tradition, Blyth Valley becoming one of 33 constituencies which flipped from Labour to the Conservatives.

But talk of a sea change has been premature. In the Covid era, votes are more fluid than ever. Indeed, the fact that levelling up is back on the policy agenda is a recognition that the electorate has become more volatile during the pandemic – and that the support of the new Tory voters is still very conditional. It is also an admission that the bricks of the wall are loosening and, up against a far more capable opposition leader, the 2024 general election will be a much harder battle. Johnson’s party’s lead over Labour is at its lowest point since before the general election and, for the first time, a poll has shown Sir Keir Starmer scoring higher in a survey of who voters would prefer to be in No.10. It could be argued that the reasons for this fall in popularity – the handling of the coronavirus crisis, the U-turns and the looming economic crisis – apply equally to the country as a whole. But it is also clear that in the red wall seats the impact has been greater.

It is estimated that the living standards in these regions have fallen even further behind.

Lower earners, in particular, have suffered the brunt of the economic fallout; less able to isolate themselves at home, and exposed to the worst effects of the pandemic, they have faced what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation 
think tank has dubbed a ‘double injustice’.

During the lockdown, the very battleground constituencies Johnson promised to level up have been at the sharp end of a surge in job losses.

The Boris Fan Club claims this is all beyond his control. After all, any government would have had a nightmare trying to deal with such unprecedented circumstances. This is to miss the point. Under Johnson’s watch, the inequality gap between the prosperous and the less well off has been widened.

Posing as anti-elitist, the Johnson-Cummings project was all about convincing the new northern electoral base they were for ‘the people’ and against ‘the establishment’.

This new base, however, has been unimpressed by the mismanagement of the pandemic. From the U-turn on free school meals vouchers to his refusal to sack a minister at the centre of a scandal, the perception that he is ‘one of us’ not ‘one of them’ has crumbled.

The Dominic Cummings saga prompted the view that lockdown restrictions applied to the many not the few. It was, as the Yorkshire Post put it, ‘a scandal which reveals a discernible arrogance and shameful hypocrisy at the heart of Downing Street’.

The Bishop of Leeds spoke for many when he accused Johnson of treating the British people like ‘mugs’.

The free school meal vouchers saga confirmed this view. First Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford forced the government to reverse its decision on the vouchers, and then Tory MP Ben Bradley argued that there should be checks on parents spending them on booze and fags.

The Tories’ new working class base will not be reassured by a recent Social Market Foundation report warning of the ‘severe economic disruption’ that would face the northwest and the Midlands if the coronavirus crisis was followed up by a no-deal Brexit.

The emotional slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ helped Johnson romp to victory at the last election. But the practical reality of the Covid-19 era has demonstrated the need to secure an EU trade deal.

The foundation has calculated that 70% of voters in seats which switched from Labour to the Conservatives last December said they wanted the UK to prioritise working with Europe.

If there is hope for the Tories, it lies in the perceived ‘wokeness’ at the heart of left wing politics. The red wall voters are deemed to be social conservatives, turned off by the cosmopolitanism of right-on identity politics.

On matters such as defending Winston Churchill’s reputation, defacing the Cenotaph, curbing foreign aid and scrapping trans self-ID plans, Cummings believes that stirring up a divisive culture war could be a winning tactic in battleground constituencies. He will no doubt continue to push hard on this over the next few years, painting Starmer – a human rights QC from Kentish Town – as the leader of a more metropolitan, more middle-class Labour Party.

But, as Johnson clearly understands, it’s still ‘the economy, stupid’ that really matters.

This is why, when told at the beginning of lockdown that unemployment could rise from 1.3 million to about two million and have a disproportionate impact on former mining and manufacturing areas, he is reported to have replied: ‘Christ!’ With 16 of the new red wall seats having majorities under 1,000, and politics in a continuous state of flux, he knows there’s still everything to play for.

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