This piece by Patrick English on the ‘Red Wall’ is taken from our recent report “The state of public opinion: 2023”. Read the full report here.
At half past 11 on the night of 12 December 2019, the constituency of Blyth Valley declared. An old mining community, represented until that day by Labour stalwart and staunch Brexit backer Ronnie Campbell, the constituency fell from Labour to the Conservatives on a 10-point swing. It was the first seat to flip in that election and would be followed by no fewer than 59 more moving from the red to the blue column.
Of all those seats to fall in Boris Johnson’s barnstorming victory, Blyth Valley was among 31 to meet James Kanagasooriam’s original definition of the ‘Red Wall’.
That phrase is nowadays often applied well beyond that original conception, to encompass ‘seats taken by the Conservatives from Labour in 2019’, ‘working class Labour seats’, and even ‘places where woke things don’t go down well’. However, the initial purpose of the definition was to highlight a significant group of constituencies which, demographically, despite their long association with Labour, looked far more pre-disposed to voting Conservative than previous election results had suggested. In other words, Kanagasooriam identified a string of constituencies stretching across the midlands and north of England in which the Conservatives were underperforming.
The collapse of the Red Wall in that 2019 election, then, was as much a correction to a statistical oddity as anything else; the Conservatives were successful in a host of constituencies where they had been unperforming before.
The result is that many former Labour stronghold constituencies are now competitive. We ought to expect them to swing to-and-fro with the median voter as parties increase and decrease in support, rather than having a baked-in Labour predisposition which could have historically been worth anything up to 10 or 15 points. The ‘Red Wall’ is in play.
YouGov MRP modelling back in May 2022 estimated that Labour would have been on track win 85 out of 88 key ‘battleground’ constituencies if an election were held that time, including the classic ‘Red Wall’ seats of Redcar, Sedgefield, Workington, and Leigh, among others. Labour’s national polling lead at that time was somewhere around 8 points. Now, with the lead of around 20 points, most if not all modelling of how the ‘Red Wall’ would vote predicts a Tory wipe-out. Carry the median voter, and you will carry the ‘Red Wall’.
The ‘Red Wall’ may now be leaning Labour, but whether or not Starmer’s party do indeed recapture these old heartlands has different immediate consequences in terms of electoral fortunes for the two parties vying to lead the next government.
For Labour, failing to win back the constituencies across the North and Midlands which fell to Johnson’s Conservatives – and indeed to May in 2017 – would spell defeat. Without splashing red paint back across the ‘Red Wall’, there is no feasible path to a parliamentary majority for Labour. There are not enough winnable constituencies in Scotland, Wales, and the South of England to get Starmer into Number 10.
Conversely, losing the Red Wall absolutely does not mean the Conservatives are necessarily heading for defeat. If Sunak were to fail to hold those constituencies won by a combination of May and Johnson, the Tory seat total would drop back to around about where it was after their election victory in 2015.
It is no coincidence that David Cameron, who led the Conservatives to that very 2015 victory, has now been brought in at this time in the electoral cycle, with the polling where it is, and with the electoral geography as it stands. His presence, along with other high-ranking Cabinet members from a similar brand of 2010s-Conservativism, is a direct appeal to former Conservative voters who are demanding more competence, and better Conservative management of the country than that which they have become accustomed to.
But it is also a trade-off. Cameron and his brand of Conservative politics – the brand Sunak now seems to want to adopt – are not particularly appealing to the ‘Red Wall’. The reshuffle points to a new, defensive electoral strategy on the part of the Conservatives – retreat from the ‘Red Wall,’ shore up the ‘Blue Wall’ (Remainvoting, Southern, graduate-heavy seats) and restore their competitiveness in the midlands marginals and bellwethers of old –Nuneaton, Corby, Worcester, and Loughborough.
The Conservatives know that while the ‘Red Wall’ is crucial for Labour’s chances of governing, the same is not true for them.
Indeed, Labour need to push beyond the ‘Red Wall’ to win the election, charting a course of wins which extends south and into those former bellwethers and traditional battlegrounds of British politics. Labour need to win over ‘Stevenage Woman’.
‘Stevenage Woman’ is the archetype of a particular segment of British voters who are hugely important to any potential election-winning Labour coalition. Known as ‘Disillusioned Suburbans’, this group is younger than average, economically insecure, tend to be female, tend to have young families, and are highly disillusioned with the parties and leaders currently on offer in British politics. Crucially, they are found all across the country but especially in many key bellwether battlegrounds around Labour’s 325 target line. In 2019, ‘Stevenage Woman’ backed Boris Johnson.
Now, they’re up for grabs.
‘Disillusioned Suburbans’ differ from the ‘Workington Man’ swing voters who typically dominate the ‘Red Wall’ in a number of ways. The latter, the ‘Patriotic Left,’ are more male than female, tend to be older than average, heavily backed Brexit in 2016 (much more so than Stevenage Woman), tend to have a lower education level, and have a stronger Labour-voting history than their more Southern-suburban cousins.
The differences between these two groups highlight the scale of the task Labour faces to win a parliamentary majority. Yes, they must win back ‘Workington Man’ and rebuild the ‘Red Wall’. But they must also win over ‘Stevenage Woman’ and become competitive again in places which haven’t seen a Labour MP since 2005. For the Conservatives, the game is much simpler – keep Labour out in the marginals and bellwethers of old, and they can lose the ‘Red Wall’ but still win.
By Dr Patrick English, Director of Political Analytics, YouGov.