Sebastian Payne, Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour's Lost England (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2021)
John Healey (ed), Hearts and Minds: Winning the Working-Class Vote (Fabian Ideas pamphlet no 653) (London: Fabian Society 2021)
Reviewed by Professor Rohan McWilliam
'You're not listening to us'. These are words that Labour candidates have been used to hearing on the doorsteps of working-class people in the so-called Red Wall ever since they campaigned for Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. The term crops up several times in Broken Heartlands, Sebastian Payne's attempt to understand the seismic political shift that took place in the 2019 election. If there is a broken heart here, it is that of the Labour Party. The emotional bond that used to exist between the working-class and the party has been well and truly obliterated in the new political landscape. Working-class voters feel they have been marginalised by a metropolitan elite within Labour that fails to listen to them and does not share their values. Some of the real aggression towards the party in once solid-Labour constituencies comes from the feeling that they have been let down by an organisation that they had long supported. At the same time, one of the feelings in Labour circles that no one dare express (but I will) is the sense that 'our people' have betrayed the party.
If there is a failure to listen, that cannot be said of Sebastian Payne of the Financial Times. Listening is what he sets out to do, touring former Labour constituencies that went Tory (mostly for the first time) in 2019. He visits large towns such as Blyth and Wakefield but also insists that some of the new Tory-voting areas are more rural in feel. One value of the new political landscape, he argues, is that it has put places like these in the spotlight after years when they had arguably been ignored.
Explaining the nature of the Red Wall and its voters has become a sub-genre in modern reportage. The book comes in the wake of pollster Deborah Mattinson's book, Beyond the Red Wall, not mentioned by Payne (see my review). The two books are rather different. Mattinson (well known for her work with focus groups) spends a lot of time talking to actual voters. Payne does some of this but more often talks to politicians and civic leaders of all political persuasions who offer observations on these areas. This includes Red Wall Tory MPs as well as the Labour MPs they replaced. Payne includes encounters with most of the major political figures of our time, including Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer (though not Jeremy Corbyn which is a weakness in the book as it would have been useful to have had his assessment of what went wrong).
The standard analysis of the Red Wall transformation puts it down essentially to a combination of Brexit plus Corbyn which produced the tipping point, leading to the defection of former Labour voters. Whilst there is much here to support such a view, the great value of Payne's journey is that he demonstrates that it was the product of much deeper historical forces. These go back even further than the post-2010 wave of austerity for which voters (fairly or unfairly) blamed Labour councils and Britain's membership of the EU. Rather, they are the product of the wave of deindustrialisation commenced in the 1980s. As Ian Lavery, Labour MP for Wansbeck, says 'the industry is gone, there isn't any huge industry that's come in here despite many pledges of investment'. He mournfully comments: 'What we've got now is a high street full of bookmakers, kebab shops, charity shops and Ramsdens (pawnbrokers)' (84). Yet Payne argues strongly that these areas should not be described as 'left behind'. One reason why they have gone Tory is that their economic base has changed with new kinds of businesses providing employment. They have begun to recover from deindustrialisation even though that progress on that front is sometimes patchy. Corbyn's Labour did not catch on in these constituencies because its narrative of 'the many, not the few' failed to describe the relative prosperity voters were experiencing. Thus Redcar's economy was sufficiently buoyant to provide employment despite the collapse of its steelworks in 2015: the constituency went Tory for the first time in 2019. Some live in gleaming new out-of-town estates (dubbed by the Economist this year as 'Barratt Britain' for the new houses and heavy car ownership that characterises such areas). Sedgefield (Tony Blair's former constituency) is now more prosperous than ever; it is home to the North East Technology Park which is boosting small businesses in the area. Corbyn's miserablist rhetoric cut no ice in a constituency which has gone Tory for the first time since 1931. Payne thinks Sedgefield will be one of the hardest seats for Labour to win back.
Understanding the new political landscape is impossible without reflecting on the figure of Boris Johnson himself. There is a gulf between the way that the left views Johnson and the way he has gone down with voters in the Red Wall. The left sees him as a charlatan with no fixed convictions on anything. The people that Payne has spoken to love his charisma, optimism, promises of 'levelling up' and, above all, his delivery of Brexit. A former Labour voter in North-West Durham describes Johnson as follows: 'I love him because he seems straightforward, he's positive in his thinking, he doesn't give negative waves off. There's no such thing as 'no' in his vocabulary. It's "yes, we'll do it"' (69-70). Significantly, he is adored by voters who had previously despised Margaret Thatcher. The days when Johnson can be under-estimated are over and the left needs to recalibrate how it speaks about him.
Corbyn, by contrast, was a reason not to vote Labour in the Red Wall. His party gave off a strong vibe that they did not like or approve of the values of voters in these constituencies. Many residents have links to the armed forces; even if they have not served themselves, they can point to a family member who has. Corbyn's history of dissent from British foreign policy thus did not go down well. Lee Rowley, the first ever Tory MP for North-East Derbyshire, reported an 'immense dislike of Jeremy Corbyn' (231) on the doorstep. This constituency has seen a complete rejection of Labour: most of its district councillors are now Tories. Former Labour minister Alan Johnson complained in his conversation with Payne about the patronising view emerging from Corbynitas that the working class 'had no agency whatsoever' and that 'we have to be moulded and directed by middle-class people from Islington' (88).
But the book shows there is far more at stake than political personalities. Many northern towns suffer from poor transport connections which have hurt them economically and left them feeling adrift from the rest of the country. Bus and train services are infrequent and unreliable. One feature of the new Red Wall Tory MPs is a determination to address this. Richard Holden in North West Durham is campaigning for a new rail line from Consett to Newcastle. Ian Levy, MP for Blyth Valley, has sought funding for the reopening of the Northumberland railway line, a victim of the Beeching cuts in1964. Work on the line is due to start shortly with trains running around the time of the next election. What will Labour say about this?
Another problem with Red Wall areas is that young people find themselves forced to leave, hence the electorate tends to skew older and arguably more conservative and certainly more pro-Brexit. Young people go away to university in a city and then find jobs in that city or in another city that is calling out for knowledge workers. Providing opportunities for young people to stay local (for example, through improved further education) is therefore important for retaining the economic and cultural vibrancy of smaller towns. Labour is far too focused on cities. This is simply not a viable electoral strategy.
Equally alarming for Labour is the widening cultural gap which has become evident. Voters in the Red Wall respond more to the language and mood music emerging from the Conservatives. They detest 'identity politics', not least because it means the left is not talking about the things they care about. It is wrong to assume these people are racist or sexist; they simply don't like the cultural package that emanates from left-wing activists. The Culture Wars position the left as people who actively disdain much of British culture, an argument that has been well and truly weaponised by the right. Antony Higginbotham, new Tory MP for Burnley, tells Payne, 'Don't underestimate how patriotic many northern towns are' whilst noting that Boris Johnson connects with voters because he never sneers at people who fly the Union Jack (322). Payne talks to Nigel Farage who relates how he visited a pub in Doncaster, close to Ed Miliband's constituency office. Farage claims he asks the publican how often the former Labour leader had been into the pub (peopled by ex-miners watching Channel 4 racing) only to be told that he had never been in. Whether this story is true or not, it illustrates a gap in world view between Labour and the people who used to support it. Restoring this connection will be difficult and may prove impossible.
And then there is Brexit. Payne talks to Boris Johnson who gives away what is likely to be one of the main Tory arguments in the 2024 election: Labour will try to take Britain back into Europe. Whether this is accurate is again beside the point: it will be a powerful rallying call and one can see large numbers of voters in these constituencies responding to it. Furthermore, the new Red Wall MPs do seem to have dug deep into their communities, showing an emotional and political connection with them. They are offering growth and a language of aspiration whilst claiming that Labour in power did not deliver for the north of England. Tony Blair is interviewed and will have no truck with the latter point. On the argument that his government did nothing for Sedgefield, he robustly argues all the local schools were renewed (with a consequent improvement in results), there was a new community hospital, low unemployment and huge reductions in pensioner poverty and child poverty. Yet many Labour supporters fail to speak up for what was in many ways a remarkable record on the domestic front. This allows the Tories to steal the party's clothing in claiming to offer social progress.
Can Labour come back? Payne is bleak about its prospects. Certainly there is no evidence that these voters have changed their minds about Brexit. The new Fabian Society pamphlet, Hearts and Minds, suggests a few ways forward. Its research director Luke Raikes suggests that the party should not be as focused on the Red Wall as it seems to be at the moment. The party has to address the nation as a whole. The Fabians have identified 125 seats that the party needs in order to form a government. What links them is a high concentration of working-class votes. In order to win, Labour needs to remember that class still matters. Jonathan Reynolds, now Shadow Business Secretary, argues that Labour needs to show both how it will grow the economy and then divide it up more fairly. Yvette Cooper champions an MIT for the north, a science hub that would develop and spread the benefits of new technology. Jon Cruddas MP argues that Labour must stand for investment in work and jobs (not assuming that jobs will simply be lost through automation); it must 'augment rather than replace labour'. This, he claims, has been done in Barking and Dagenham, his constituency, where the local authority has encouraged new businesses and helped construct thousands of new homes. The pamphlet offers a few pointers but no magic bullet to resolve the problems that Sebastian Payne raises.
Taking Payne's book together with Deborah Mattinson's, we now have a developed literature setting out the challenges Labour faces, based on the experience of the Red Wall. They are the modern equivalent of Southern Discomfort, Giles Radice's Fabian pamphlets, that examined Labour's failure to break through in 1992. It is fair to say that Conservative supporters will find these new books a more enjoyable read than left-wing readers. Recovering the lost voters described here will take more than just the odd wave of a Union Jack. If anything, Labour needs to develop a revision in progressive politics that goes deeper than anything offered by Corbyn. It needs to recognise the role of personal aspiration but blend this with a communitarian outlook. Jon Cruddas's contribution to Hearts and Minds is an example of how to bring these two divergent forces together. Voters don't want doom and gloom from the left; they want optimism and a conviction that the left not only understands their preoccupations but shares them. The left should welcome the government's 'levelling up' pitch and make the case that Labour is the only party that can truly bring about this transformation. What I take from Payne is that Labour needs to engage with the changing economic landscape of seats in the Red Wall. Let's assume that it is a good thing that these voters will not automatically vote Labour. Let's assume that maybe these voters know something that we don't. Then we might get somewhere.
Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, and co-director of the Labour History Research Unit. If you have any comments on this review, email firstname.lastname@example.org.