Deborah Mattinson – Labour’s new strategist. What we know of her views on The Red Wall.

12 May

As ConservativeHome readers may have spotted last week, Keir Starmer has hired a new strategist in the wake of Labour’s less-than-ideal election results.

Deborah Mattinson is the appointee in question. She brings a huge amount of experience to the party, having previously advised Tony Blair, John Smith and Neil Kinnock, as well as being chief pollster to Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor and then Prime Minister.

Since then she co-founded and has worked for BritainThinks, a research and consultancy company. She is also author of the book Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next? So Starmer will no doubt be drawing on her research here.

Last year ConservativeHome was delighted to have Mattinson speak in our Conservative Party conference event, Social care and beyond: delivering for older voters in the ‘Red Wall’. Lots was covered in the event, but we’ve tried to give a summary of some of the most interesting snippets from Mattinson. It was recorded in October – so it’s worth bearing in mind that a lot has changed, but it still gives an idea of what insights she’ll have for Labour HQ. The clip is at the bottom of the article too.

A reminder: the Red Wall isn’t small

Mattinson said “it’s easy to lose track of how many people it is”, warning “you can’t lump a group of people like that – 4.7 million people – together”.

However, there are commonalities

In general, Mattinson said Red Wall voters want the same as everybody else: “decent housing, decent jobs… secure retirement… a future for [their] children”. 

But she said these voters “feel somewhat resentful” and “believe that their areas have been neglected”, and that they live in places that have “incredibly proud pasts but very uncertain futures”. 

Marks and Spencer is a symbol of social deprivation

Mattinson talked about the problem of “run down high streets” in some Red Wall areas, and she noticed a “correlation” across those she visited. “Everywhere I went… people had lost their Marks and Spencer”, which she described as a “symbol of the good things being taken out of your area.” Will Labour have a think about how it can put the “good things” back?

Older voters

Mattinson also spoke about the importance of older voters in the elections, who “are very patriotic”. In general, she said “there is a very strong identification with local communities… but really strong resentment towards London and the South.”

Women and caring

Mattinson spoke about the fact “women were often the hardest hit” in some of these communities, and “more likely to be on benefits… more likely to be working in multiple insecure jobs and… very often carers.” So perhaps we’ll see a stronger feminist message for Labour’s Red Wall campaign.

Red Wall voters wanted to be “wooed” and have high expectations

Mattinson said that Red Wall voters have “now discovered their political power” having had their loyalty taken for granted by Labour. She added that they will have “high expectations for a better future and better funding”, believing that “Brexit will help it along.” She said that they are “quite optimistic and hopeful”.

But they know you don’t get “out for nowt”

On the difficulty of raising taxes (for things like social care), Mattinson warned that “voters aren’t stupid – they know you don’t get out for nowt.”

Participative democracy

On areas like social care (which formed the basis of the event), Mattinson advocated the likes of “citizens’ juries/panels” and “participative democracy”. She believes these are the way to get “breakthroughs” on tricky topics, while acknowledging that politicians don’t like this approach. In general, she seems to want to level more with voters about costs and difficult areas, even advocating “political and fiscal education”.

Levelling up does not cut it for people

Although Mattinson found that people resented the South, in her research she found that the term levelling up “is not known by people” and that they “don’t find it credible as a solution.” Could Labour find its own soundbite to rival the Conservatives on “levelling up”?

Voters see the UK as a “zero sum game”

Furthermore, Mattinson said people see regeneration in their area as a “zero sum game”. “Basically what they believe is that their place can’t get better unless those other places get worse”, she cautioned.

Cynicism around HS2

Mattinson said she found “huge cynicism” about HS2 in the Red Wall, and that “all that they could see was that it would help people in London to get around the country more easily.” Perhaps we’ll see Starmer go more on the attack around this topic – it could be a simple way to gain ground.