Since the Conservative Party won its huge majority in 2019, newspapers have devoted a huge amount of coverage to “Red Wall” voters, who were widely credited for delivering the decisive election result. The phrase has become synonymous with traditional/working-class Labour heartlands, particularly in the North, where people somehow decided Etonian Boris Johnson was the man for them two years ago.
How could this be? It seemed remarkable that voters that had historically rejected, even despised, the Conservatives had such a change of heart. Many Tories have spoken about the need to repay these voters; that they lent them their vote and so forth, hence the endless promises of “levelling up” in the North and other parts of the country. Labour, too, has been trying to win back “foundation seats”, a new term for the Red Wall, through a strategy that recommends “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”.
At the same time, increasing numbers of political pundits have pointed out that there’s been a tendency to generalise Red Wall voters, in terms of who they are and what sort of politics they go for. The Red Wall actually covers quite a large part of the UK, yet the term often treats voters across it as a homogeneous entity, all wanting the same things. Writing for The Critic, Lewis Baston says the “mythical wall was a way of making a patronising generalisation about a huge swathe of England (and a corner of Wales)”.
What’s interesting is how much the Red Wall definition evolved from when it was first coined by pollster James Kanagasooriam in August of 2019. He used it to describe a geographical stretch running from “N Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster”, whose constituents, based on education and economic factors, might be expected to vote Conservative but tended to go for the Labour Party.
The first is a huge "red wall" stretching from N Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster. When you talk about cultural barriers to voting Tory – this is where it is. This entire stretch shouldn't be all Labour but is (9/16) pic.twitter.com/H30TUiu83m
— James Kanagasooriam (@JamesKanag) August 14, 2019
In his 2020 blog, Anthony Wells, Director of Political Research at YouGov, says the reason many such areas vote the way they do is due to “cultural, historical and social hostility towards the Tories”. In former mining communities, for instance, “the legacy and memory of Thatcherism and the dismantling of industry in the North in the 1980s” has lingered. Merseyside is “still extremely unforgiving territory”, he writes.
But the Conservatives were able to break down many other barriers in 2017 and 2019, in parts of Lancashire, Country Durham and Derbyshire. The most obvious explanation for the Conservatives’ big majority was its message of getting “Brexit done”, which unified voters across the political spectrum. Many were also turned off by Jeremy Corbyn, who projected a lack of patriotism among other things. Clearly the Conservatives’ manifesto and messaging appealed to a lot of new demographics.
But here’s where it gets trickier as the Red Wall was not just about Brexit, or any of the other variables it is sometimes attributed to. As Baston points out there are lots of marginal seats in the Red Wall, such as Bury North, which has “only voted twice since 1955 for the party that has not won the popular vote (1979 and 2017).” So it cannot be taken as evidence of an epic Conservative breakthrough. Others point out that there has been a “long-term structural shift against Labour in these constituencies.”
Of course, the Conservatives should be proud of making headway in new areas, but the Red Wall narrative has become too simplistic. Furthermore, Kenan Malik made an interesting point when he wrote that, “the red wall is deployed less as a demographic description than as a cypher for a certain set of values that working-class people supposedly hold, a social conservatism about issues such as immigration, crime, welfare and patriotism.”
Increasingly it seems to me that people use the Red Wall as a synonym for a worldview. We might say, for instance, that the Red Wall voters like displays of patriotism, such as the union flag. But you could say that for lots of people around the country. Dare I say sometimes the Red Wall is used as a way of getting an “unfashionable” view across (“but I doubt the Red Wall is enjoying the latest BBC programming”), where others might be worried to say it themselves. Perhaps the Red Wall is more mindset than geography.