LHRU Book Review: 'Beyond the Red Wall', 'Building Bridges'

Cover of 'Beyond the Red Wall' by Deborah Mattinson

Deborah Mattinson, Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What will Happen Next? 

(London: Biteback, 2020), £16.99 hardback


Sally Gimson, Building Bridges: Lessons from Bassetlaw for the Country

(London: Fabian Society, 2020): Fabian Ideas no. 652


Reviewed by Professor Rohan McWilliam


Fasten your seat-belts, progressives - this is going to be a bumpy ride. Beyond the Red Wall is a tough but necessary read for all on the left. Its assessment shows how far Labour is from power and how difficult the task of recovery will be. The situation is in fact worse than presented here. Unless Labour can make a comeback in Scotland (which at the time of writing seems unlikely), then the party is likely to be out of power for more than a generation. We should also note a new Fabian pamphlet by former parliamentary candidate Sally Gimson which goes over some of the same territory as Mattinson but provides some serious ideas about how to address the situation.

On election night in 2019, everybody was transfixed by the sight of constituencies in the north of England voting Tory for the first time. The so-called 'Red Wall' was now a blue wall. Even Tony Blair's former constituency of Sedgefield returned a Tory MP. Working-class voters who would, just a few years before, have never dreamt of voting anything but Labour made a spectacular transition. Labour has become increasingly middle class in its support base which is now concentrated in big cities. The Conservatives have expanded their working-class support. Brexit is the immediate cause but is this merely a blip or a substantial (possibly permanent) realignment in British politics? Beyond the Red Wall suggests the latter.

Deborah Mattinson is one of the UK's leading pollsters, strongly identified with the use of focus groups. She has long enjoyed links with the Labour Party, having worked for Gordon Brown when the party was last in government. Confronted with the crumbling of the Red Wall, she decided that the best thing to do was to actually talk to former Labour voters about why they voted in a way that would have horrified their parents or indeed their younger selves. She went to three constituencies in the north of England (Hyndburn, Darlington and Stoke-on-Trent) where she conducted focus groups amongst men and women in the C2DE social grades. There are of course lots of objections one can make to the use of focus groups. How representative are they? How is the conversation shaped? Mattinson makes no claims that this is scientific research (deploying a cross section of the local population). Instead, she offers a qualitative assessment of a series of conversations where she probed the motivations of voters. We get to know the personalities and life histories of some of her participants. Not all of the new Tory voters would share the views expressed here but the voices in this book need to be heard, even if one does not agree with what is said. Mattinson shows that the crumbling of the red wall has been a long time coming.

The three communities vary but some themes emerge. These are communities that have been 'left behind' over a long period of time, ravaged by the waves of deindustrialisation that has transformed Britain since the 1980s. The manufacturing jobs that provided security and pride have disappeared. Transport links are often poor, making it hard to work or shop. A Resolution Foundation report discovered that just 2% of Red Wall voters commute by train and most are dependent on cars. This makes them sensitive to the price of petrol. Their sense of place is under threat as their high streets are a shadow of what they once were. There are frequent complaints about the loss of Marks and Spencer. All that remains are charity shops and the lower quality versions of fast food. London is resented because it seems to get the lion's share of resources.

Immigrants are frequently blamed for this, taking jobs from the locals, clogging up the time of GPs so that it takes weeks to get an appointment and filling schools with children whose lack of English allegedly slows down the progress of others. Brexit is seen by the voters as the solution. In fact, as Mattinson notes, Red Wall constituencies have been the site of less immigration than elsewhere but the perception endures.

Labour is blamed for taking Red Wall voters for granted over many years. A common theme in the conversations is that they have been let down by politicians. The great flaw of New Labour was that, in pursuit of aspirational voters in Middle England, it increasingly had little to say to the voters who had once been the party's mainstay. If they feel let down by Labour, the reason is that they have been. Yet the conversations that make up this book also reveal how complex the situation is. The last time that these voters said that the party really 'got them' was during the early years of Tony Blair's leadership and this was because he understood voters who wanted to 'make something' of themselves. Corbyn's Labour, by contrast, seemed stuck in the past.

Such voters take pride in being working class. Mattinson thinks this class identification is actually stronger than it was when she interviewed a comparable group of people back in 2011. Increasingly, they felt that Labour since Blair had done nothing for the North of England. Rather, Labour was viewed as a middle-class party essentially shaped by the cosmopolitan views of the metropolis. Red Wall voters complained that the party was no longer on the side of the worker. When asked to describe Labour, they imagine someone living in a grand house in London eating quinoa.

There has also been a sea change in the way the Tories are perceived. I was struck by the fact that they were not blamed either for the deindustrialisation that took place in the Thatcher years or for the last decade of austerity: two periods of government that damaged the livelihoods of the poor. There is a feeling that the Conservatives might once have been 'snobby' or (in Theresa May's words) the 'nasty party' but now they are a party for everyone. Memories are clearly very short. Perceptions of Boris Johnson are positive (most of the interviews were done before the Covid crisis): underneath his buffoonish exterior voters detect a sharp mind with a strong sense of direction. They like his talk of 'levelling up' and ending the North-South divide. Peter Gibson, the new Tory MP for Darlington, may be on to something when he says that 'Boris come across as someone who is quite happy to hold a Union Jack and I think that's been quite important'. The contrast with Jeremy Corbyn is obvious.

For Labour historians, much of what Mattinson has uncovered is not entirely new. There were moments, listening to her participants when I was reminded of Richard Hoggart's portrait of his working-class upbringing in Leeds in the 1930s where locals viewed the world in terms of 'Them' and 'Us'. The feeling that politicians have let the people down and do not listen to their concerns is also one that one could find being expressed anytime over the last one hundred years. Furthermore, the period since the 1970s has seen much of the left fall out of love with the working class because it did not behave as they thought it should. If we read Beyond the Red Wall, this dislike is clearly reciprocated. Although Mattinson suggests Labour can woo her participants back, I suspect in her heart she feels it will not be able to. The concerns of the metropolitan left do not strike a chord with the people she has been talking to.

Finishing this book, I did not feel that Labour needs to move to the right, even on aspects of culture though it should stop assuming that patriotism is automatically racist. Nor should Labour pander to these voters on the issue of immigration. What is clear is that these voters want real change and that requires Labour to be ready to make a large economic offer, with investment in communities that make a difference. Whilst it is important that Labour fields MPs that working-class voters can identify with, the important thing is authenticity. Waving a union jack every now and then won't cut it.

Another problem will be the way Labour responds to the investment that Boris Johnson's party puts into the Red Wall constituencies. Many of Mattinson's interviewees will feel that this vindicates their decision to vote Tory. How does Labour respond? It will need to have a clear answer. Perhaps more to the point is the 2019 survey from the Hansard Society that Mattinson quotes which finds that 30% of respondents never talked about politics and 26% said they were not interested at all. In a curious way it is the Conservative Party that has always got this and developed an appeal by deploying an emotional form of address (including patriotism) as much as deploying specific policies.

Mattinson has little to say about how her interviewees receive their news: the press, television, social media, word of mouth? This is an odd omission. However, the reality is that, even if one wants to blame the ways the news is shaped by some right wing newspapers, Labour still has to deal with the very real feelings expressed by these voters.

Labour in local government is often blamed by Mattinson's voters. I was struck by the fact that they do not perceive cuts made by local Labour councils as the result of austerity pursed by Conservative governments since 2010. Yet it is at the council level that the party will have to remake itself. Many of the people interviewed respect business and do not view it as a parasite on the work of ordinary people. None of Mattinson's voters is calling for more laissez faire capitalism although they clearly believe that government intervention is not the solution to all problems-a point worth making as the left has spent the last five years assuming that it is.

Cover of 'Building Bridges' by Sally Gimson

Sally Gimson has a particular insight into these issues. In 2019, she was briefly parliamentary candidate for Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire before being removed (a situation that is not fully explained in her pamphlet). Gimson is perhaps an unlikely person to talk about the area as she is a former Camden councillor who is an ardent Remainer whilst the constituency she sought to represent voted by 68% for Brexit. In 2019 what had formerly been a strong Labour seat returned a Tory MP with a 14, 000 majority. Brexit is one explanation. The hatred for Corbyn is another. Gimson, however, does not go over the kind of cultural issues that Mattinson is interested in. Instead, she shows she has done her homework on the constituency and comes up with ideas about how Labour might address places like Bassetlaw.

Despite having been a mining area, Bassetlaw is semi-rural; a long-standing problem for Labour which has often not known how to speak to rural voters. Although the term is not much used here, the constituency feels left behind. Residents earn £34 less than the average in the UK and many are locked into low-skilled, and hence low-paid, jobs. Locals who get an education and develop key skills often move on to cities. Both transport connections and the choice of shops are poor. Gimson argues that Labour needs to invest in locations like Bassetlaw to make places that people will not want to leave and which can attract new residents.

To crudely summarise Gimson's solutions, they are broadband and buses. She argues that it is exactly the place that would benefit from free fibre optic broadband (a much derided part of Labour's manifesto in 2019 but one that, post-Covid, looks more sensible and necessary). Labour must make clear that it will invest in high quality, reliable bus services. At the same time, it should stand for up-skilling the workforce and the construction of affordable housing. In other words, it ought to stand for the things that voters actually care about. Labour needs to ask questions along the lines of 'What is it like to grow older in Bassetlaw?'. It should make sure that the constituency is able to hang on to its talent by creating attractive neighbourhoods at a time when many are likely to spend more time working at home than in the past. Like many of Mattinson's respondents, she feel there needs to be a more equitable settlement between London and the regions. For Gimson, 'Losing the Red Wall seats needs to be a wake-up call about the dignity, not just of work, but of skilled work, creative work and life-long education, learning and sills which give people a sense of control over their lives'.

Whether we like it or not, we are now entering a new political landscape post-Brexit but also (hopefully) post-Covid. Both in different ways are transforming our politics. The party that will win has to show that it understands voters like the people Mattinson and Gimson spoke to. The party that disdains them is doomed to perpetual opposition.

Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University and co-director of the Labour History Research Unit.