Payne journeys through the Red Wall seats to discover how Labour lost them and Johnson won

18 Sep

Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne

The first thing Sebastian Payne prompted me to do was to order a copy of English Journey by J. B. Priestley. For Payne starts his book in Gateshead, where he grew up, and is sporting enough to quote what Priestley wrote about it in 1933:

“No true civilisation could have produced such a town, which is nothing better than a huge dingy dormitory.”

Payne is not a second Priestley. He is neither such a good writer, nor so rude. But he is a good investigative journalist, who wants to understand what happened in the Red Wall seats where the Conservatives made such inroads in 2019.

The term “Red Wall” was coined by the pollster James Kanagasooriam to describe seats which had never returned a Tory MP since 1997 (or in some cases since the Second World War); voted on average by 63 per cent for Brexit (compared to the national average of 52 per cent); had a substantial Labour majority during the 1990s; and also had a substantial minority Tory vote.

Four such seats went blue for the first time at the 2017 general election: Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Walsall North.

Thirty four went blue in 2019, and another 14 stayed in Labour hands. Payne quotes a Labour aide who says the 2019 result could have been even worse:

“We looked at the North and Midlands and thought the whole thing could just go, it could have been another Scotland for us.”

But to lose 34 seats is still pretty bad, and Payne sets out to discover what happened, and whether 2019 “was a fluke, or a realignment”.

His method is to visit ten Red Wall seats, each of which gets about 30 pages of text: Blyth Valley, North West Durham, Sedgefield, Wakefield, Don Valley, Great Grimsby, North East Derbyshire, Coventry North West, Heywood and Middleton, and Burnley.

In the course of his researches he interviews 120 people, including many former Labour MPs, often spoken to remotely, in part because of the pandemic. So we hear from Tony Blair, David Blunkett, David Miliband, Alan Johnson and many others.

In Blyth Valley, he meets Ronnie Campbell, former miner, Labour MP there from 1987-2019, when he retired because of a heart complaint; and Ian Levy, former mental health nurse, who proceeded to win the seat by 712 votes for the Conservatives.

Levy told Payne how he came to stand:

“We would often go out for a meal or a drink, me and my wife Maureen. On the wander back, when I’d had a few beers, I would start complaining about the state of the town centre: the state of the bus shelters, the feeling of despondency there was in the town where people feel really, really let down, and that their vote is taken for granted.

“I think she was happy to hear this, once, twice, maybe 30 times. But once it got to 40 or 50, she’d absolutely had enough. I remember this one night in particular she said, ‘Either do something about it or shut up.’ And I said, ‘Right, OK then.'”

The next day he told her he was going to stand for Parliament. His “gut feeling” took him towards the Conservatives, but he found there was no Conservative Association in Blyth Valley, so he wrote to David Cameron, explaining his passion for Blyth, the problems he had identified and how he intended to fix them.

Much to his and Maureen’s surprise, he received a positive reply, and in 2016 was invited to CCHQ for an interview, after which he became the prospective parliamentary candidate.

His first campaign, in the 2017 general election, was run with £500 donated by Matt Ridley, described by Payne as “the aristocratic science writer and libertarian campaigner based in Northumberland”.

Levy’s daughter and her friends distributed leaflets, and the Conservative vote rose to 15,855 (it had been 8,346 in 2015), but the genial Campbell was still well ahead, with 23,770 votes.

Two years later, the Conservative vote increased again, to 17,440, while Campbell’s successor fell back to 16,728. Levy in his second campaign had won a famous victory.

“One of the nuisances of the ballot,” Lord Salisbury once remarked, “is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means.”

There is a temptation, when seeking to explain what happened in the Red Wall seats, to pretend to greater knowledge than is actually possible.

It can be difficult enough to know what is going on inside one’s own head, let alone anyone else’s, as one makes up one’s mind how to vote. Here is Payne on his own decision in the EU Referendum of 2016:

“On both sides of my family, almost everyone voted Leave. I was deeply torn: my northern hinterland and instincts pulled me towards Brexit, but after twenty minutes in the polling booth, my head put a tick in the Remain column.”

One rejoices to find such a balanced outlook, such conscious doubt, in a reporter for a newspaper, The Financial Times, which expressed such dogmatic enthusiasm for remaining in the EU.

There is an overwhelming sense, in every place visited by Payne, of having seen better days. Great industries have collapsed,  so has the communal life which they engendered, and handsome town centres are left to rot.

Local pride is wounded at every turn by evidence of neglect, shoddiness and former greatness. The prosperous, of whom there are more than one might think, flee to houses on the periphery.

And as Payne explains, the Labour coalition has broken down:

“From its inception, the party was built on a Hampstead-to-Humberside electoral alliance, bridging metropolitan liberal voters, typified in the north London enclave, to the working-class voters in England’s working-class towns. Brexit annihilated this alliance, but Labour’s shift on other matters set the stage for the demise, according to Blair.”

Blair talks at considerable length to Payne. The ingenuity with which he justifies himself is impressive, and his self-righteousness is insufferable.

Nothing is ever Blair’s fault. Norman Tebbit, speaking from his office in the House of Lords, strikes a different note:

“There were mining communities in rural areas where there was very little other work. Unfortunately we could have run those mines down much more slowly. We could have done more to help to bring jobs to those areas. There was a deep and profound economic and social change that went on, which was adverse to those local people.”

One of the paradoxes of Payne’s account is that he talks to so many politicians, he does not always allow the voices of local people to be heard.

We instead get the generally rather bland language of professional politicians, discussing what to do about the Red Wall seats, what to do about Brexit, and still cut off from the people who in 2016 seized the chance to make their voice heard, administering a most tremendous shock to the metropolitan liberals who had ignored them for so long.

The weakness of Theresa May after the 2017 general election turned out to be a trap for the Remainers. Peter Mandelson tells Payne how Blair assembled a group of like-minded Labour figures and told them they had “a real opportunity” to get Leaver voters to think again.

After they had spent some time trying to persuade Leave voters that leaving was not such a great idea, Mandelson told Blair “We’re not gaining traction here”, but Blair would not accept this.

The People’s Vote campaigners were not thinking straight. As Mandelson says, the question of “what would be on the ballot paper of a second referendum…was insoluble”.

Labour, which in 2017 was still promising to implement the referendum result, ended up in a ridiculous position at the 2019 election, seen by Leave voters as an attempt to wriggle out of getting Brexit done, and Johnson won a thumping victory.

Johnson enters this book at the end, campaigning in May 2021 in the Hartlepool by-election, another famous Tory victory:

“With Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, he paced up the seafront in his trademark blue suit – sans coat, despite the weather. He was mobbed. Soon, the traffic piled up as every car stopped to point and shout, ‘Boris!’ He was the Pied Piper in the middle of a hurricane. He asked each voter he stopped to talk to if the party could count on their support. Bar some who were uncertain, every one answered in the affirmative. No one said they were backing Labour. The response was unlike any I have seen to any politician on the campaign trail, in any election: dozens of Hartlepudlians wanted selfies and elbow bumps with the Prime Minister. You cannot imagine David Cameron or Theresa May eliciting such a response.”

Payne later interviews Johnson:

“Recalling the scenes on the beach front, I asked why he felt he was so personally popular with working-class voters, despite his Eton and Oxford background? Was it that he was seen as an unconventional political insurgent? After running his hand through his mop of hair several times, Johnson said, ‘Look, it beats me.’ He appeared to be on the cusp of revealing more, before restraining himself. ‘It’s not about me, this is about this country.'”

Yes, it is about what kind of country we are, what kind of nation. And to cast light on that question, I hope another author, a latter-day Priestley, will make an English journey and spend more time talking to random members of the public, unimportant people.

Guy Opperman: In the North East, Labour’s Red Wall continues to crumble – here’s where we can win next

20 Jun

Guy Opperman is the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, and is MP for Tynedale and Ponteland.

During this year’s local elections, we saw seismic change in the North East of England. Hartlepool fell with a near 7,000 majority to Jill Mortimer. Ben Houchen secured 73 per cent in the Tees Valley. In County Durham, Northumberland and elsewhere, the Labour Party retreated.

I don’t think that is our high watermark. In May 2021, we solidified our 2019 general election successes in Blyth Valley, across County Durham and in Teesside – and we can do better.

It has taken time. When I was selected to be the Conservative candidate for Hexham at the 2010 General Election, it was the only Conservative-held seat in the North East. We gained over 100 seats in the 2010 election across the country, but only one new seat was gained in the North East. In 2015, Anne-Marie Trevelyan took the formerly ‘safe’ Liberal Democrat seat of Berwick, making it three.

However, our electoral success in the North East only started really to change in 2019. We gained seven seats – including Tony Blair’s old seat in Sedgefield. Following our Hartlepool victory, we now have 11 seats altogether.

However, there are opportunities for us to go even further, and to do so, we need real action, and determination over the coming years. Boundary changes may alter some seats, but this is how it presently stacks up.

In Northumberland, we now hold three of the four constituencies, and run the council on our own. As we head towards the next election, Wansbeck – the seat of Ian Lavery, an arch Corbynista – is well within our grasp. At the last election, Lavery clung on: but his majority was cut from over 10,000 to just 800.

In truth, he was lucky to hold the seat. We put most of our effort locally into winning the neighbourhood constituency of Blyth Valley but, in the May local elections, local Labour Councillors saw their majorities tumble. It will be for the new Conservative Council in Northumberland to deliver for local people, attracting major new employers to create jobs – building a new train line which will link Ashington and Blyth to Newcastle upon Tyne, and changing Northumberland for the better.

In County Durham, my southern neighbour Richard Holden has written on in ConservativeHome of the sea change in his constituency. I saw first-hand at the local election some of the amazing new Conservative councillors who are delivering for their communities. Richard will always be rightly famous for defeating Corbyn’s heir apparent, Laura Pidcock. In my view, no Labour seat in County Durham is safe. The remaining seats all have majorities under 6,000. There is a big change happening in Durham.

In Sunderland, Labour hold all three seats with majorities of less than 4,000, and in Sunderland Central (majority 2,964), the Conservatives topped the poll in the local elections.

Many of our recent gains came from the Tees Valley. Perhaps that’s no surprise. Ben Houchen is doing an incredible job in transforming Teesside – from delivering more jobs and investment, to saving the Airport, and more importantly projecting a ‘can do’ enthusiasm that all can see.

Ben’s landslide victory shows we can win in any part of Teesside. Both Stockton North and Middlesbrough now look very winnable. Even in Middlesbrough, a seat once so safe the former Labour MP lived in france most of the time, Ben Houchen won well over 60 per cent of the vote. And if Hartlepool can be won by nearly 7,000, anything is possible with work and a real commitment to bring change for the better.

We are making progress on Tyneside too. In a by-election in North Tyneside caused by the resignation of Kate Osborne, now a Labour MP, a local young campaigner showed local residents exactly what a hardworking local Conservative can achieve – and won, taking a safe Labour seat.

In Gateshead, Blaydon is another area with real potential. It is a seat that neighbours my own, and my sense is that Boris Johnson’s leadership and the Conservative message is resonating on the ground.

However, whilst there are many opportunities for success, we will only make progress in the North East if we continue to deliver the change people want to see. So how do we achieve that?

In 2012, as I recovered from my brain tumour, I did a four-week charity walk from Sheffield to Scotland – through what was then the Red Wall. I met people in pubs, mosques, bed and breakfasts, shops and at community events. I talked to people endlessly to get an understanding of the change people wanted to see.

Most of all, people wanted proper representation, with local champions fighting for better investment in schools and hospitals, improved public transport, and more job opportunities. That is exactly what the Government under Boris Johnson is doing. Key symbols of this that matter: like the relocation of part of the Treasury to Darlington, which will open up a world of opportunities for local young people, and play its part in ending the ‘London Centric’ culture that has existed for far too long.

In my own constituency since 2010 we have rebuilt all four high schools, refurbished a local hospital and invested heavily in our community. That is levelling up in action. By getting on with the job and delivering on the people’s priorities, there is a great future for the North East. The Labour Party is out of ideas and does not represent their heartlands. We must keep working, select candidates early, and make the case for conservatism in action.

Can we win more seats than the 11 we now hold? Yes, we can.

Shapps has spotted a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give Britain world-class railways

28 Nov

What a wonderful time to be in charge of Britain’s railways. The pandemic both demands and enables a programme of improvements which would otherwise have taken many years to achieve.

Since March, about £10 billion of public money has been spent to keep the trains running. At first sight, that looks like an unmitigated disaster. It is certainly unsustainable.

But it also means the strike weapon has lost its edge. To threaten to bring empty trains to a halt is no threat at all.

Nor can the rail unions divide and rule, as they did when services were divided between different train operating companies, a system which had already collapsed before the pandemic.

This is a moment of central control, when the Government is paying the bills and can insist that the interests of passengers and taxpayers take precedence over the desire of the unions to prevent change.

Ministers recognise this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sweep away the accumulated absurdities, ranging from outdated working practices to the ludicrously convoluted fare structure, which are holding the railways back, and to press ahead with such innovations as the introduction of driverless trains, first seen on the Victoria Line in 1968 and the Docklands Light Railway in 1987.

In March this year, ConHome can reveal, a committee on rail reform was set up within the Department for Transport and began meeting weekly.

It is chaired by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and attended by the Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, but nobody supposed the DfT could provide the specialised knowledge of how to run a railway.

So the expertise is provided by members of the committee including Sir Peter Hendy, Keith Williams, Andrew Haines and some of the Non-Executive Directors of the DfT, notably Tony Poulter.

Hendy, appointed by Ken Livingstone to run Transport for London, was kept on by the winner of the 2008 mayoral election, Boris Johnson, received a knighthood after the London Olympics of 2012 in recognition of the excellent transport arrangements during the games, and since 2015 has chaired Network Rail.

Williams, a former Chief Executive of British Airways, has since September 2018 chaired the Williams Rail Review, set up to make recommendations for reforming the entire structure of the industry, with the interests of passengers and taxpayers put first. Its work has not been published, but is being drawn on now.

Haines is Chief Executive of Network Rail, a former Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority, and before that was Managing Director of South-West Trains.

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that Shapps has asked Haines to produce a 30-year strategy for the railway called the “The Whole Industry Strategic Plan”.

And earlier this month, The Sunday Telegraph revealed that Haines has been asked by Ruth Hannant and Polly Payne, joint DfT directors general for rail, to report on the future of the East Coast Main Line, and to do so “from the perspective of a neutral single guiding mind”, rather than in his capacity as Chief Executive of Network Rail.

Hannant and Payne have for many years operated a job-share, and before arriving at the DfT in December 2017 were joint Directors of Higher Education Reform at the Department for Education.

One does not have to be Dominic Cummings to reckon this is perhaps not the best way to run a railway. Many in the industry think so too.

But the paucity of deep expertise within the DfT, and its propensity to meddle counter-productively with such matters as the timetable, demonstrate the need for another body, or “neutral single guiding mind”, to be in overall charge.

We require what the press likes to call a Fat Controller, though one cannot help reflecting that the original Fat Controller’s safety record was poor.

The safety record of Britain’s railways has in recent years been good. Some of the credit for that belongs to Mark Carne, Chief Executive of Network Rail from 2014-18, whose previous career at Shell was coloured by the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988.

Nothing, evidently, must be done to put safety at risk. But just as it is no longer necessary to check the oil in a car by opening the bonnet and inspecting the dipstick, for there is a light on the dashboard which will tell you if more oil is needed, so it is no longer necessary for each train to be checked every 24 hours by a driver who walks all round it at ground level, on a path wide enough to keep out of the way of other trains, and well lit enough to be used at night.

The unions insist on this ritual, which has become a ridiculous waste of the highly paid driver’s time, and of taxpayers’ money. Like modern cars, modern trains tell you when something goes wrong.

In the era of nationalisation (1948-93) the railways appeared to be in inexorable decline, and the most famous figure associated with them was Dr Beeching, who proposed to close a third of the network, which is pretty much what happened.

Since privatisation, passenger numbers have doubled, the network has undergone many improvements, there is a lot of new rolling stock and some of the lines closed by Beeching are being reopened.

Lord Adonis has argued with his usual brio the case for doing this, while Larry Elliott has pointed out that without Beeching, which left so many towns cut off, Brexit might never have happened.

One of the great attractions of creating improved railway services is that this cause appeals far beyond the ranks of Conservatives.

Good railways, railways of which everyone can feel proud, are a quintessentially One Nation policy, levelling up in action, and the 2019 Conservative manifesto rightly promised that

“we will restore many of the Beeching lines, reconnecting smaller towns such as Fleetwood and Willenhall that have suffered permanent disadvantage since they were removed from the rail network in the 1960s.”

There is now every prospect that passenger services between Ashington and Newcastle, lost in the 1960s, will soon be restored. The line runs through Blyth, long a Labour stronghold but captured by the Conservatives last December.

Ashington itself is in the constituency of Wansbeck, held last December by Ian Lavery for Labour with a majority of 814, compared to a majority of 10,435 in 2017. Perhaps the new line will help tip Lavery into oblivion.

Beeching was a blunder of Harold Macmillan’s later and less happy years as Prime Minister. It ought now to be undone, along with the destruction of the Euston Arch.

This cannot, however, become an excuse for wasting taxpayers’ money on “fantastically overpaid and inefficient” train drivers, as one source close to the reform committee describes them.

Nor does anyone know how quickly or fully the demand for rail travel will revive. The likelihood is that some commuters will decide they would rather work from home.

And there are many demands on the Treasury’s funds. Rishi Sunak will heed the calls of the NHS, social care and other good causes before he listens to the railways, especially if he thinks the latter are squandering taxpayers’ cash.

So a realistic deal has got to be made with the rail unions. The powers that be are disposed to allow existing drivers, who are mostly quite old, to retain their perks, but not to show the same indulgence to new recruits.