Article Published October 8th, 2020
by Baroness Quin
Former Europe Minister and Labour MP
The biggest myth about the Red Wall is that it was all about Brexit and that the Red Wall seats, which had voted Leave in the 2016 Referendum, fell to the Conservatives because of Boris Johnson’s repeated mantra that he would “get Brexit done”.
Yet listen to the words of two ex-Labour MPs who lost their seats in the election speaking immediately in the aftermath of defeat and after having spent the previous month campaigning and listening to voters views.
Firstly Caroline Flint, Labour MP for Don Valley who wanted Labour to accept the euro-referendum result and not campaign for a second referendum, but who said on the night of her defeat: “Time and time again on the doorstep, people say ‘I’m Labour through and through but I just can’t vote Labour while that man is your Leader’…”.
Secondly Phil Wilson, who lost his Labour seat at Sedgefield (and who was on the opposite side of the Europe debate to Caroline Flint, wanting and campaigning for a second referendum) but who said immediately after his result was announced that he had “lost count of the number of people who said to me on the doorstep ‘Phil if you had a different leader I’d vote for you – you’d walk it’…”.
Corroboration of the experience of Labour MPs and candidates was provided by the Conservative victor in the Red Wall seat of North West Durham. Richard Holden said of his losing opponent Laura Pidcock; “Laura represented a very Corbynite streak of the Labour Party which had been comprehensively rejected by local people. On the doorstep more than anything else what was posted back on was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. That’s why this result has occurred here tonight.”
Was it Corbyn or was it Brexit?
Generally speaking most Labour candidates in the election calculated that the Corbyn factor outweighed Brexit as the main issue on the doorstep in the ratio of 5 to 1.
This has not prevented the myth that the Conservative victories in these seats was primarily about Brexit, a myth perpetuated by a number of sources, including the Brexit-supporting UK media.
It has become the preferred explanation for many leading Conservatives who want to claim support for their policy of a hard Brexit cutting most links between the UK and the EU. Yet during the election it was clear that Boris Johnson knew how important the Corbyn factor was because in all his visits to Red Wall areas during the election campaign and his television interviews he peppered his speeches with countless allusions to Corbyn, and the danger his extremism would constitute for the country.
That the Red Wall was all about Brexit is also the preferred explanation of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allies who want to deny his prime role in Labour’s large scale defeat.
Len McCluskey, Jeremy Corbyn’s keenest trade union supporter, declared that the election result was “virtually all about Brexit” and pointed out how popular Corbyn had been in the election just two years earlier claiming that this meant that he was very unlikely to have been a negative factor in 2019. However, those campaigning door to door, including myself, were astonished at just how anti-Corbyn voters had become. Whether the demonising of Corbyn was fair or not is another matter but that there was a sea-change between 2017 and 2019 is impossible to deny when faced with the evidence in all parts of the UK – Remain areas as well as Leave ones.
Most Labour voters were Remainers
It is also important to remember that while the Red Wall seats had voted Leave – to different extents – in 2016, various opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Labour voters in those seats voted Remain. Neither is there any correlation between the results of those Labour candidates like Caroline Flint who campaigned on respecting the Referendum result and those – like her Yorkshire fellow-MP Mary Creagh – who favoured a People’s vote. The reduction in the Labour vote in Don Valley was 17.8% whereas in Wakefield Mary Creagh’s vote was reduced by 9.9% but overall the pattern was mixed and inconclusive.
The point has also been made that if Labour had been more pro-Brexit in its stance it would have further alienated support in strongly Remain-voting seats in London, Scotland and elsewhere. Even in the Red Wall there were more than half a dozen seats which Labour lost by majorities smaller than the number of Remain voters who switched to the Liberal Democrat or Green Parties.
None of this is to suggest that Brexit did not play a part but simply to argue that it was not the principal factor in Labour’s performance. There is no doubt that Boris Johnson’s catchy and misleading slogan of “Getting Brexit Done” and his so-called “Oven-ready deal” resonated with voters. It did not help either that Labour’s position on Brexit often seemed to be a case of two-steps forward and one-step back and therefore frequently unclear. While the Shadow Cabinet for the most part favoured another Referendum and a more pro-European line, Corbyn himself (although representing a strongly pro-Remain constituency) was nonetheless caught between that pro-EU Shadow Cabinet majority on the one hand and key members – and staunch Corbynites – such as Ian Lavery (Party Chairman) and Jon Trickett as well as some of his closest advisers in his private office who all took a contrary view. As a consequence, Corbyn (with his long history of Euroscepticism) never seemed a convincing advocate of the pro-European line to which most of his party subscribed. This ambiguity meant that Labour did not go out and explain how disastrous the emerging Tory Brexit would be (and how different from what had been promised) during the long months of Westminster turmoil, losing an opportunity to lead and strengthen the overall shift in public opinion against Brexit.
It’s not just about England
Another myth is that the Red Wall is only about England – a myth which if perpetuated risks adding further to the tensions between the different countries of the UK. Yet the Red Wall can be seen as extending to Wales where traditional Labour seats fell to the Conservatives with perhaps Wrexham, Labour since 1935, providing the most striking example. Labour’s vote also fell sharply throughout the South Wales valleys, in a similar way to that in Labour-retained seats in the North of England.
In Scotland Labour lost 6 seats (to the SNP) including in what used to be known as Labour’s traditional “Red Belt” area of support and areas, of course, where Labour needs to win in future to form a government and reclaim its erstwhile Scottish heartlands. My own experience of canvassing in Scotland during the election certainly revealed that, while here too the Corbyn factor outweighed other considerations for Labour supporters, ambiguity on Brexit in strongly pro-Remain Scotland didn’t help.
The myth that only England is pro-Leave and that England is solidly of that view needs also to be challenged. Besides the fact that Wales voted Leave there are other aspects to bear in mind. For example, more people voted Remain in London than throughout Scotland. And of the ten most Remain-voting local areas in the UK, seven were in London and in six of those Labour has notched up convincing majorities in elections in recent years. In England outside London, the Leave vote was strong, admittedly, but some of England’s principal regional centres – Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, and Leeds – all voted Remain. And let us remember how narrow the majority was UK-wide.
Labour should not get sidetracked
There is a danger that because of these Red Wall myths Labour may get distracted by a perceived problem rather than an actual problem and may feel, too, that it has to mute its opposition to a hard Brexit and fail to highlight the overwhelming case for promoting close cooperation with the EU on a number of important levels and in a number of ways which are clearly in the UK’s interest.
The change of Labour leadership and the start made by Keir Starmer hopefully will make this unlikely, but puncturing the red wall myths at every opportunity should help reinforce such a trend.
Indeed, a recent poll showed that Red Wall seats are substantially more likely to say they have returned to Labour than respondents elsewhere and on average these seats have already seen a 7 per cent swing to Labour since the election less than a year ago.
An opportunity for Labour
The harsh reality of Johnson’s deal is already becoming apparent particularly in Northern Ireland but also across the UK in so many sectors including in the increased bureaucracy and form-filling necessary once we are no longer part of either the customs union or the single market. There are also huge worries in Labour’s heartlands about a No-Deal or a hard Brexit given, for example, statements such as that by the head of Nissan that the plant is “unsustainable” in the case of “No-Deal” and a consequent resort to tariffs under WTO terms.
In such alarming circumstances Labour does have an opportunity to reconnect with its lost voters through a European policy which addresses and engages with their concerns not least with their economic preoccupations as we deal, too, with the legacy of the pandemic. Arguing powerfully for a change of direction and greater competence by the current government in the short term as well as presenting convincing policies for the UK and its relationship with the EU in the longer term is a two-pronged approach capable of having broad appeal to the “Red Wall” and beyond.