Labour take note: red-wall voters want an ambitious plan for renewal – not tough talk and flag waving

Dr James Morrison, Associate Professor in Journalism, Faculty of Arts and Humanities

A council housing estate in England, typifying a ‘red wall’ constituency.

If projections can be relied on, Labour has good reason to feel confident of supplanting the Conservatives as biggest party at the next general election. Yet it remains far from clear that Keir Starmer is heading for a House of Commons majority.

A Tory-to-Labour swing of 4.5% in 2023’s local elections fell marginally short of the 5% switch-around he needs to enter single-party government at Westminster.

Labour made gains in this year’s red wall salvage operation, which included the successful recapture of councils in Stoke-on-Trent and Blackpool. But it still stuttered in post-industrial areas where it might have been expected to capitalise on broken Tory promises about levelling up.

Among its tally of mixed results were only modest advances in once deep-red heartlands such as Bassetlaw, Sandwell and Darlington, as well as other “left-behind” places New Labour annexed in 1997, such as Great Yarmouth.

That’s to say nothing of the party’s failure to sway “Worcester woman”. The fabled floating voter credited with propelling Tony Blair to victory voted Green in 2023. Party co-leader Carla Denyer mused that “deep dislike of the Tories” had failed to translate into enthusiasm for “Starmer’s uninspiring Labour”.

So what exactly do people want from Labour? And why is it still struggling to fully exploit the mix of ennui and anger felt by so many voters who turned Tory in 2019?

Buses, doctors, jobs

While carrying out fieldwork for my recent book, The Left Behind, I interviewed residents, business owners, community activists and parish councillors in several post-industrial areas contested in the local elections this year – from Stoke and Great Yarmouth to Leigh in Greater Manchester. Doing so gave me a clear sense of the concerns preoccupying voters in the regions that switched to Conservative MPs in 2019 but are still waiting for promises of levelling up to materialise.

Most apparent was the need for a vision of a more socially just, interventionist approach to regulating the economy and reviving public services. This is the most likely way to motivate a resurgence in Labour support.

The “anyone-but-the-Tories” backlash witnessed in the locals followed a campaign dominated by party-political point scoring over who could talk toughest on crime and antisocial behaviour. But my interviewees were much more likely to complain about poor-quality, precarious jobs, lack of opportunities for young people, unaffordable housing and the impact of long years of austerity on overstretched schools and GPs, desolate high streets and unreliable or non-existent bus services.

Labour may have comfortably won the council election in the ward covering the sprawling post-war Stoke housing estate of Bentilee, but it did so on a paltry turnout of 16%. Here there is a deep-seated disillusionment with politicians of all hues which was described by a local pensioner who told me: “So many people on the estate now say, ‘I’m not voting; they’re all a waste of time’”.

She despaired of the fact that an area once characterised by “employment, and plenty of it” in pottery factories (where she worked as a manager’s PA) now had few jobs other than in a single area of “rejuvenation”: distribution centres.

A retired ex-miner had a similar tale in Leigh. Lamenting the collapse of its once thriving coal and cotton industries, he asked despairingly, “How can you have an apprentice in Tesco?”

Meanwhile, villagers from Forsbrook, near Stoke, and Belton, outside Great Yarmouth, united in condemning the threadbare state of local buses. Belton parish councillors despaired at how a village of 4,000 (mainly elderly) residents now had no GP, and the nearest surgery was three miles away with no connecting bus link.

A carless foodbank volunteer, from nearby Gorleston, said she had been forced to turn down several paid jobs in town because she had no way of reaching work in time for the start of her shifts.

On the rare occasions when people did mention crime or antisocial behaviour (key concerns, according to team Starmer) they tended to view them as symptoms of under investment, not delinquency. Though critical of “gangs” that drove her and her son out of Bentilee, a working single mum reflected that young people had “nothing to do” there thanks to the closure of its youth club.

Asking the wrong questions

As ever, perceptions of which issues are most salient to voters depend on what exactly you ask them and how you frame your questions. The “deep-dive” focus groups that pollster Deborah Mattinson conducted in ex-Labour strongholds for her 2020 book, Beyond the Red Wall, were almost exclusively concerned with asking why so many people had abandoned the party in 2019.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, three factors featured prominently: dislike of Jeremy Corbyn; a sense of being ignored and patronised by middle-class, socially liberal Labour leaders; and frustration at the party’s nebulous position on Brexit.

In the three years since, Mattinson, now Starmer’s director of strategy, seems to have continued asking herself (and subsequent focus-groups) much the same questions. As a result, instead of addressing the evident material interests of red-wall voters, Labour is still fighting the last war.

It is straining to distinguish itself from Corbyn’s party by out-toughing and out-flag-waving the Tories. All this is guided by the alliterative triad of “pride, place and patriotism” Mattinson sees as integral to contemporary working-class values.

Starmer is fond of reminding journalists “the world has changed” whenever he is asked to justify abandoning the pledges he made on standing as Labour leader. When the time comes to write his manifesto for the coming election, he would do well to apply this same rationale to memories of contests past – and not just 2019’s.

While Britain’s economic outlook might well be bleaker than when Blair took office (as Starmer often observes when asked why he is scaling back Labour’s ambitions), so too is the state of its collapsing public realm.

The people in lost constituencies want Starmer’s Labour to spend more, not less, than New Labour. This is the most significant aspect of “red-wall sentiment”, and yet the one Starmer seems reluctant to recognise.

This article first appeared on The Conversation on 10 May 2023.

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