Whatever the pandemic has changed about British politics, one rule, forged four years ago in the Brexit referendum, still stands. The former “red wall” seats in the north and Midlands, which turned blue in December, hold the key to governing Britain.
These voters loom at the forefront of both parties’ strategies. The Conservative party need lose only 41% of the voters it won from Labour to lose its majority in the 2024 election – a far smaller amount than the 64% of more liberal-minded Conservatives in the south that would need to be lost for the same to happen.
As Johnson prepares to deliver his vision for Britain after coronavirus, it will be key that both Labour and the Conservatives avoid making lazy, outdated assumptions about these voters.
A Brexit deal is gradually looking more likely. But in the event one is not possible this year, some in Conservative circles think that bringing Brexit back to the fore with an old-fashioned leave v remain battle over the end of the transition period will fuel support among red wall voters, and return them to the Conservative camp after a spot of pandemic-related wavering. In reports that No 10 views Keir Starmer as a “remainer lawyer”, we may have seen a flavour of how the Conservatives plan to use Brexit to attack the Labour leader.
But this approach fundamentally misunderstands how these voters view the world. Red wall voters aren’t Brexit culture warriors of the sort we see amplified on social media.
Yes, they mostly voted leave in 2016. They wanted the result respected, and voted to get Brexit done in December. Yet the reason the Conservative party was so successful in the 2019 election was not because its campaign stoked Brexit divides, but because it captured an overriding feeling that people were sick of hearing about Brexit.
Anyone who conducted focus groups during that election will tell you that it was the desire to “get Brexit done” that dominated discussion about Europe, not traditional battle lines pitting remain against leave. It was not a Brexit culture war that captured the red wall, but a Brexit boredom war, one that – despite the shrillness of social media – tapped more into consensus than division.
And research suggests this issue is becoming less relevant to these voters. In the most recent Issues Index by Ipsos Mori, only 6% cited Brexit as the number one issue facing the country, compared with 44% in December 2019. There may be more risk to focusing on Brexit than gain: in a recent survey by Kekst CNC, 68% of participants said the government should focus on coronavirus rather than Brexit.
Brexit is not the only possible culture war in town. Some have suggested that No 10 is actively looking for a fight on cultural and identity issues, seeking to drive a distinction between Tories and Labour for red wall voters – whether on statues, trans issues, or the right to tell offensive jokes.
On the surface, this approach feels like it might work. Paula Surridge of Bristol University has shown that 2019 Conservative voters are united in their social conservatism, while Labour is more vulnerable as its voters are split.
But polling on these issues sets up a divide that might not be at the front of people’s minds. Britain is not the US, where polarisation among politicians has translated into polarisation among the public. In focus groups I have conducted over the last few years, statues, transgender toilets and no-platforming barely register. Most people do not know what “woke” even means. Views are also more mixed than many assume – in my focus groups, people criticised both protesters and Dominic Cummings for breaking lockdown rules, not one or the other.
For the sake of Labour’s electoral fortunes, if the Conservatives do pursue a culture war, the opposition should not take the bait. Years of prominence may mean that, as in the US, the debate becomes embedded in the public consciousness – and as Surridge’s analysis shows, that will be to the advantage of the Conservatives.
Tony Blair recently said the Labour party must avoid launching “politically into a kind of culture war”, and that the party would have a far better chance of delivering social progress if it bided its time and changed things from office. It already looks as if Labour may be learning this lesson. Two weeks ago, the Sunday Times splashed on No 10’s plans to scrap an amendment to the Gender Recognition Act that would have allowed people to change their gender on their birth certificate without a medical diagnosis. It had all the makings of a week-long row, but Starmer sidestepped the issue. The beat of the Conservatives’ culture war drum quickly died out.
Other issues will determine who will win these red wall voters. Fairness is their lodestar. They feel they work hard day in, day out, but do not get the same treatment as others – be it benefit claimants, big companies, or tax dodgers. This feeling existed long before Brexit or the toppling of monuments, and need not be Conservative territory. It explains why the majority of red wall voters supported Brexit in 2016, but also why they voted for Ukip in 2015, why some voted Liberal Democrat in 2010, and why almost all opted for Labour in 1997.
Whichever party owns that fairness agenda – whether through the NHS, immigration, the cost of living, or some new issue we don’t yet know – will win the future.
Tomorrow Boris Johnson will distance himself further from austerity in a speech setting out the future of the UK’s economy. No 10 is already rewiring the civil service, and billions of pounds of investment for the north and the Midlands is set to be announced. In this climate, Starmer should be much more concerned by how people in the former red wall respond to Johnson’s pledge to “build, build, build” than what they think of Winston Churchill.
• James Johnson is a former Downing Street pollster who worked under Theresa May and now runs JL Partners