The New Year media narrative is being hotly pursued, and it does not provide comfortable reading for the prime minister.
The latest ominous findings were revealed in a poll of Red Wall seats captured by the Conservatives last time round. The survey showed that in the event of an election tomorrow, Boris Johnson would lose his overall majority and would have to step aside for his rival, Keir Starmer, who would become prime minister, though would fall short of an overall majority himself.
Not the kind of report that Number 10 advisers would want to place in front of the PM while he’s having breakfast.
But before going on to examine the peculiar fetishisation of the Red Wall in the last two years, we need to take a closer look at this latest poll and others of a similar nature.
The most obvious thing to point out is that there won’t be a general election tomorrow, this month or even this year. All opinion polls are no more than snapshots of public opinion at a specific time, not a prediction of what will happen in two or three years.
The more important point is that the headline figure – a Labour lead of 16 per cent over the Conservatives – applies only to the 57 constituencies the Tories gained from Labour in 2019. It is an ominous finding, to be sure, but when you broaden the lens through which you are looking and turn your attention instead to the country overall, you find that nationally, the same survey finds that Labour are leading Johnson by a mere five points. Given the midway point in this parliament, and especially given the self-inflicted, appalling mistakes the government has been making recently, surely Labour’s national lead looks rather insubstantial?
We are further invited by the media to believe that the Red Wall – where many former Labour seats in the Midlands and the north of England turned Tory in 2019 – is more than a battleground between the two main parties: it is the sacred talisman with which Johnson cast his spell to confound the entire country. Never before (we are asked to believe) has such a swathe of Labour seats been in thrall to a Conservative leader.
Apart from (almost) all Johnson’s Tory predecessors in office, of course.
“Red Wall” is no more than a shorthand description of seats that changed hands at the last election; every election which results in a change of government has many of these. True, the government didn’t change hands in December 2019, but Johnson did convert the hung parliament he inherited six months earlier into the biggest majority his party had enjoyed for more than 30 years.
Perhaps it is a sign of how polarised the political debate has become since Brexit that we seem to need, in our minds, a simplistic illustration of what happened after the opposition parties fell into Johnson’s trap and supported his demand for an early election. The phrase itself – “Red Wall” – serves both as an explanation of what went wrong for Labour and the Liberal Democrats but also provides an easy reference point for who is to blame for Johnson’s victory.
The result of this obsession has been an unusual focus on these seats by the opposition, by the media and, most important of all, by the government itself. Johnson’s fate is deemed to lie with those former Labour voters who, having got sick of the cynical and devious manoeuvrings of the Labour Party over Brexit, decided to give Johnson a chance to deliver it.
And so a nervous game of satisfying the middle and north of England is seen as the only path to victory for both government and opposition. The rest of us might feel justified in feeling somewhat ignored as the prime minister pursues his levelling up agenda, an agenda seemingly focused on a series of relatively small geographical areas outside London. Every policy, every initiative, every speech (yes, including the Peppa Pig one) is gauged as to how effective it is in wooing those Red Wall voters.
Margaret Thatcher was a more instinctive politician than Johnson and spent less time worrying about what she said, confident that her basic beliefs chimed accurately with the aspirations of voters, particularly those who had deserted the Labour cause in 1979. But at the root of both politicians’ strategy lies the same truth: voters will stick with a government they believe has their best interests at heart.
The Red Wall is not a separate country; voters there do not make their minds up about voting intention isolated from what’s going on in the rest of the country. The attention given to those seats has made it look as if something unusual and extraordinary happened there two years ago, something unprecedented. But Thatcher had her own Red wall, just as Blair, and Wilson before him, had their Blue Walls. There lies the secret of future victories, but voters there cannot and should not be treated as if their aspirations and expectations are any different from anywhere else in the country.
A meaningful one nation vision of Britain would appeal as successfully in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Durham as to anywhere else, where there might be fewer marginal seats. The Red Wall is the battleground for the next election, and a slightly different battleground will emerge for the election after that, and another, different, one will emerge thereafter. This is standard electoral evolution and ministers needn’t obsess too much about where those marginals happen to be located.
What is far more important is that the rest of the country doesn’t feel left out of government initiatives. Because an electoral message aimed only at a small percentage of the nation is a message that leaves the rest of us feeling neglected. The risk is there for Labour too but it is particularly dangerous for the Conservatives as they pick themselves up after a needlessly bruising few months.
Labour’s polling advantage is no more than what might be expected for the official opposition half way through a parliament. Johnson needs to rediscover that broad, nationwide appeal for which he is famous, otherwise an unimpressive polling advantage for Keir Starmer could become too ingrained to reverse before polling day finally comes back around.