James Frayne: Coastal towns – next for the Conservatives after the Red Wall seats. And essential for a shore-to-shore majority.

13 Oct

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The Conservatives risk taking their 80 seat majority for granted; doubly so, with their domination of provincial England and Wales. There’s a sense that Labour has been devastated in their own backyard – with no way back in the near-term.

But England and Wales aren’t in the bag and the Conservatives’ hold over the working class is precarious. The pivot to it is in name only; it can be made real, but only with serious action.

Jeremy Corbyn was a clown, but Keir Starmer isn’t. The English working class came to despise Corbyn, but don’t despise Starmer and never will. He’s an entirely familiar English politician: a bit awkward and dull; a bit professional posh.

But so what? That’s most people in politics. Working class people would vote for him without hesitation. He’s basically competent; he’s not afraid to say he’s patriotic; he stands against the excesses of the lunatic fringe in his Parliamentary Party; he looks the part.

The Conservatives urgently need to narrow Starmer’s path to No 10. How should they go about this?

This column has long focused on the need to appeal to voters in the the Midlands and North. This has been the main battleground for the last two or three elections; but there are signs Conservative ambition should be extended on a large scale geographically.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that English and Welsh coastal areas should become a priority in the same way the Midlands and North have been. In this way, the Conservatives should seek to establish a mainstream majority from coast to coast.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been conducting more and more research in coastal areas – mostly in the form of focus groups, but via quantitative research too – and have been increasingly struck by the cultural, economic and, ultimately, political similarities between them in different areas.

It’s also become clear that cities like, say, Portsmouth, have a lot in common with, say, Derby. And places like, say, Great Yarmouth have a lot in common with, say, Rochdale. The smaller towns are strikingly similar.

New quantitative research that Public First has conducted as part of our work for the UK Major Ports Group – the representative body for the country’s largest port operators – confirms me in this view. It should be perfectly possible for the Conservatives to create a message that resonates equally for the working class in coastal and inland areas.

Indeed, this should be a strategic priority for the Conservatives for the rest of this Parliament. You can read the full tables of the coastal poll here and the accompanying England and Wales nationally representative poll here.

(I should say at this point that UKMPG is entirely apolitical; this reflects my reading of a poll I’ve done for them; Labour-leaning colleagues are writing their own analyses from a Labour perspective).

Coastal towns have their own particular challenges, of course, and residents favour policies specific to coastal areas. For example, coastal residents favour awarding coastal areas “special category” status in the same way that some rural areas have been awarded something similar; they also favour improving transport links between coastal areas and the rest of the country.

The Government will need to address these particular issues. But the more you look at the data and the more you listen to coastal town residents in focus groups, the more similarities there appear to be people in with less affluent towns in the English and Welsh heartlands.

Most obviously, there are huge concerns about the economic and social decline of their towns. In coastal areas, as in less affluent Northern and Midlands towns, not only do very many people think their local areas have got worse, but they’re also pessimistic for the future.  They are particularly concerned about the state of their local high streets and how small businesses have suffered (made worse, of course, by the Covid-19 emergency and the downturn that’s followed).

As in the Midlands and North, coastal town residents are desperate for policies that focus on regeneration. Many believe their children would be better off moving away to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. In towns on the coast and inland, you hear this mix of local civic pride with a belief that things are getting worse all the time (especially in the West Midlands).

For voters in coastal towns and in the heartlands, the Conservatives’ manifesto focus on improving life in provincial Britain was the right one; it obviously chimed in towns across the country.

So politically and culturally speaking, there are reasons why the Conservatives should consider coastal voters to be potential long-term Conservatives. Coastal town residents are more likely than the national average to be eurosceptic, and seem more conventionally patriotic than the average.

But, as we’ve seen in Labour’s former working class areas, they’re hardly classically Conservative. For example, they’re keen on raising taxes on the highest earners and on increasing benefit provision (the latter, likely a reflection of the downturn).

They also associate the Conservatives, as many do, with being primarily for “the rich”. In short, coastal town residents are superficially Conservative, but many are now peeling off to the “don’t know” line when asked about their voting intention, which is only a step away from taking a good look at Labour.

More worryingly, when we probed voters’ values, coastal residents, as well as those across the rest of England and Wales, said the values they held most dear were family, fairness, hard work and decency; but they were much more likely to associate Labour with these values than the Conservatives.

Over the next several months, I will be returning regularly to this theme: the need to create a mainstream English and Welsh majority from coast to coast. The research I’ve been doing is an interesting first step; it requires more analysis and more thought.

However, my strong sense is this:

  • Politicians are wrong to consider coastal areas as being radically different from the rest of the country, and indeed too different to help through conventional politics.
  • While coastal areas require some specific attention, their problems are similar to those in the Midlands and North etc.
  • The heart of the policy response should focus on civic regeneration, small business growth and new technologies;
  • As with the rest of the country, there are major differences between the cities and the towns on the coast.  And, bringing it all together –
  • The Conservatives should seek to create a unified offer which ties together mainstream England and Wales.

With Brexit finally coming to a conclusion one way or the other, and with new trade deals emerging, it’s likely that British port towns and cities are going to start receiving greater political attention.

We’re going to suddenly remember that we’re an island which demands an industrial strategy to match a new trade strategy. As this all takes place, the Conservatives should begin to prioritise the voters of these coastal areas in the way they’ve prioritised those in the Midlands and North.