In mid-2019, a former employee of the Conservative party called James Kanagasooriam began looking at recent electoral statistics for parts of England long associated with support for the Labour party. As a teenager, he had been fixated with a duvet cover featuring a map of the UK, and the fact that, in political terms, “the bottom half was blue while the top half was red”. Now, he realised, that was becoming much less certain.
Support for the Tories in the north of England, north Wales and the Midlands had grown by around 15% over the previous decade, and Kanagasooriam saw the possibility of a truly historic shift. Everything, he surmised, came down to the “degradation of historical memory: Mrs Thatcher, heavy industry, coal mining. The economics that had driven those places to group together was being replaced by a cultural sense of belonging that was more proximate to the Conservatives”.
Kanagasooriam called these areas the “Red Wall”, a term that came to define much of the coverage of last year’s general election. As journalists – like me - visited constituencies that were still sentimentally called “Labour heartlands”, they sensed that something astonishing might be afoot, and so it proved. Though the connection between the party and its supposed core vote had been fraying for years, people’s support for leaving the EU had weakened any remaining bond, and disdain for Jeremy Corbyn as leader represented the final cut. Fury, bafflement and disconnection were everywhere. And in Stoke-on-Trent, County Durham, Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and so many places besides, a huge realignment occurred.
At the heart of the transformation was a much-misunderstood desire for change, and a massed belief that the convulsion of Brexit might somehow be a catalyst for national and regional revival, answered by the Conservatives’ vague promise of “levelling up”. But the revolt of the Red Wall also highlighted cultural differences within Labour’s usual coalition of support – estrangements that had always been there, but were now threatening to become unbridgeable.
To win, the party had to somehow bring together older, working-class voters whose socially conservative instincts had been encouraged by the discourse around Brexit, and the younger, more educated, liberal people whom the fall-out from the EU referendum had pushed in the opposite direction. In the preceding years, this challenge had been made easier by the sense that Labour heartlands would always suppress whatever misgivings they had about an increasingly metropolitan brand of politics (to many people I met between 2015 and 2020, Corbyn seemed to be just another variety of the London-centric liberalism they had previously associated with Tony Blair) and either carry on voting for the party, or merely abstain. But now thousands of voters had snapped.
The Red Wall is now at the heart of politics, something highlighted again by Keir Starmer’s speech to Labour’s virtual conference: its mixture of contrition and slightly forced patriotism, and the spectacle of a London MP beginning the task of somehow bringing his party’s lost voters back. The Red Wall’s collapse was the result of decades of economic disparity between the north of England and the south-east, and related inequalities of power. It is a rich and tangled history, and Tom Hazeldine in The Northern Question takes it much further back. He notes, for instance, that in the 14th century, York, Hull, Newcastle upon Tyne and the Cumbrian town of Penrith were the only northern settlements that figured “among the richest 50 boroughs of pre-Black Death England” – and that, a couple of centuries on, the north was still lagging behind. What changed everything was the arrival of the factory, and an era in which the north – more specifically, the new industrial areas centred around Manchester – became a byword for the future.
For a brief period, Hazeldine contends, power might have been pulled away from London. The push for wider suffrage heralded by the Peterloo massacre and the campaign against protectionism by the so-called “Manchester School of liberalism” showed what such a shift might have meant. But landed and financial interests in the capital held firm, and “the pre-industrial mould of British politics remained unbroken, with fateful consequences for the North once its commercial fortunes began to slide”. From the early 20th century onwards industrial England was increasingly left to “sink or swim with its 19th-century coal mines, textile mills, steelworks and shipyards”.
Hazeldine’s account of this missed opportunity and its tragic consequences is persuasive, and though his story is told at breakneck speed – from William the Conqueror to Friedrich Engels to Harold Wilson in a few chapters – his long view is valuable. If latter-day Red Wall voters have come to see the Labour party as a creature of the capital, it is worth bearing in mind that when the sainted government of 1945-51 assumed power, none of its five most powerful ministers “were born north of a line running from Buckinghamshire to Glamorgan”. Elsewhere, his arguments are weakened by his dogged leftism (he is far too generous to the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and the Liverpudlian Trotskyist-turned property developer Derek Hatton).
Perhaps most interesting is the way that he separates out two types of “broadly working class” constituency. Those that went from Labour to the Tories in 2019 are represented by Bishop Auckland in County Durham, where the median age is 46, 99% of voters are white, most own their homes, and there is still some manufacturing industry. The Manchester constituency of Gorton, by contrast, has a median age of only 29, is 30% British-Asian, has lots of rental accommodation, and is dependent on a job market built around retail and the public sector. Labour’s vote surged there in 2017, and dropped by only 500 votes two years later – whereas in Bishop Auckland, support for the Tories rocketed on both occasions.
With real acuity, Hazeldine highlights as a key difference people’s ideas of political possibility: amid Manchester’s new skyscrapers and affluent suburbs, he says, there is a sense of wealth that should be shared more equally – whereas in a different kind of urban area, a decayed public realm and ossified Labour politics suggest that the left’s agenda has no realistic chance.
Deborah Mattinson’s Beyond the Red Wall is all about life and politics in the latter kind of place. As a pollster who once worked for Gordon Brown, she specialises in focus groups, and her latest book is centred on what people have gathered to tell her in Stoke-on-Trent, Darlington and Accrington. Somewhat inevitably, her narrative gives the impression of someone flitting in and out of such places, but her material is both fascinating and sobering – full of loss, resentment and the sense of politics suddenly being turned upside down. Contrary to Kanagasoorium’s suggestion about the degradation of memory, moreover, it implies that the north-south divide might denote something not just cultural, but almost philosophical: the difference between people who want to live with a kind of future-facing weightlessness, and those connected to the industrial past, and proud of it.
According to the people Mattinson asks, Labour is a party of the south – of 'scroungers' and 'middle-class students'
According to the people Mattinson gathers together, Labour is now a party of the south, simultaneously the representative of “losers and scroungers”, but also “naïve and idealistic middle-class students … arrogant kids boasting degrees but lacking life experience”. It is telling, too, that the party is seen by some as “Keeping everyone down and dependent on them”: not a force that addresses inequality, but one that sustains it, in its own political interests.
What do the people she calls “Red Wallers” want? Mattinson summarises the views of two men in Accrington, who want to “shift power north and end the north–south divide: make the Northern Powerhouse really happen; get all industries working together” and “bring investment back into this part of the world again”. This suggests the basis of potential agreement with the more socially liberal voters who represent Labour’s new core support, but the book also details what would get in the way – chiefly, a string of grimly familiar views about immigration and the benefits system. In March this year, Mattinson assembled in a Manchester hotel a group of people split between “Red Wallers” and “Urban Remainers”: despite regular outbreaks of consensus, wildly divergent values were expressed. Yet what her account perhaps fails to grapple with are the political complexities around age. Her most voluble subjects seem to be well over 30, and you occasionally wonder if Labour’s Red Wall woes might be eased by the simple passage of time.
Boris Johnson receives warm reviews during Mattinson’s conversations in the Tories’ new territories. “He’s said that he’ll get Brexit done, that he’ll end the north-south divide, and now, that he’ll deal with this Coronavirus thing,” an unnamed resident of Darlington tells her. “We’ll see, but he seems pretty confident to me, and I like that in him.” What an era of north-south tensions has led to, it seems, is not just politics being transformed, and an expression of popular affinity with a man whose middle name is De Pfeffel, but a huge expectations problem. If I were a Tory reading those words, I would feel more than a frisson of fear.
• The Northern Question: British Politics and the North-South Divide by Tom Hazeldine is published by Verso. Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next? by Deborah Mattinson is published by Biteback. To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.