Book review: ‘Beyond the Red Wall’

In 2019, British politics realigned. For the first time since the 1930s, Conservative MPs outnumbered Labour MPs in their traditional heartlands. The area which spans from the Midlands to North Wales and then across to Merseyside was termed ‘the Red Wall’ by Conservative strategist James Kanagasooriam – this is the focus of Deborah Mattinson’s analysis of the 2019 ‘Brexit’ election.

The Red Wall, home to 4.7 million people, comprises 8.0% of the English and Welsh population but was vital in ensuring the 52% of Brexit-supporting referendum voters had their decision acted upon. But as Mattinson powerfully argues, Brexit was a symptom of far deeper insecurity. Socio-economic isolation, a feeling of being ‘left behind’, a hunger for change, and a mindset of ‘deservedness’ all played a hand in the Labour Party’s defeat across the north.

Mattinson extracts and analyses three seats that switched to the Conservatives after decades of Labour MPs: Darlington, Hyndburn, and Stoke on Trent (as a whole). Her findings are based on a truly granular understanding of the areas in which she immersed herself throughout the study.

As a whole, she found that those living across the Red Wall share a striking sense of isolation with around 67% living in towns and just 3% in cities. For these voters, the loss of good transport links represented their communities being cut off from the rest of society. For them, the average commute to work or school is 24 minutes.

With the erasure of transport links also comes broader feelings of loss. Mattinson looks at Hyndburn, a borough north of Greater Manchester, which once upon a time was where the steel used to build the Empire State Building and Battersea Power Station was produced. The industry suffered a slow death throughout the 20th century, and with it the town’s pride in itself. Pride is what brings a community together, and without it, people start looking for radical change. The same happened in Stoke with the collapse of its potteries and in Darlington with the relocation of its native Stephenson’s Rocket exhibition to York.

Loss translates to a lack of opportunity, especially for those seeking education, employment or training. The cities boast these in abundance leading to a ‘brain drain’ or skills shortage across Red Wall towns. With these shortages and opportunities spread thinly comes high crime rates, substance abuse, and anti-social behaviour. A seed of urban resentment is planted and envy of the higher wages, better connected, and well-equipped cities simmers. 

Mattinson astutely identifies a key concept which so often characterises the woes of American voters living in post-industrial towns across the midwest – that of ‘deservedness’. Voters across the Red Wall feel ‘robbed’ and ‘cheated’ by those involved in the process of ‘leaving them behind’. They view their pride, prosperity, skills, employment opportunities and hard work as being stripped away by a metropolitan scapegoat which refuses to reward them for decades of hard work and sacrifice. The Conservative Party has realised this and is vigorously pushing a ‘levelling up’ agenda to ensure that the Red Wall voters did not temporarily lend votes to the party. A think tank coordinated by Mattinson in March 2020 aimed to hone in on one key message which resonated with Red Wall voters. This message was ‘Make Britain Great Again’.

‘Beyond the Red Wall’ offers a unique perspective of the psychological shift seen across the north of England and Wales. Mattinson considers factors of all sizes in her analysis – from the closure of a local Marks and Spencers to benefits fraud.

Mattinson highlights that the MPs elected to each of the three seats she examines have pledged specific and carefully curated goals aimed at appealing to the ‘left behind/left out’ demographic. In Hyndburn, Sara Britcliffe (the youngest Conservative MP elected) pledged to tackle the effects of community isolation, namely substance and alcohol abuse) and promised to ensure that more funding was sent to the north, stating that “this must not be a one-off response to the election”. In Darlington, new Conservative MP Peter Gibson pledged to move Stephenson’s Rocket back to Darlington, lobby for £73 million to build two new train platforms, and invest millions in new parking facilities across the town. Gibson said that “even a small amount of local pride will gee you up, fire you up, inspire you, and you’ll think ‘this is the person who will stand up for us and do something positive for the local area” – in March 2020, Darlington received this funding.

Conservative messaging was successful in positioning Labour as the cause of these ills. Positioning the party’s leadership as disconnected and ‘London-centric’ stimulated the envy and resentment which bubbled away across the north. Brexit was used as a tool to show the Conservatives as a receptive ear to the Red Wall. The party continues to learn from this election and replicate 2019 tactics successfully – as seen by the by-election gain in Hartlepool, and Labour’s continued decline in Batley and Spen and local elections across the country. 

Mattinson has since been hired as Labour’s Director of Strategy – a savvy choice given her comprehensive analysis of the Red Wall. The next election will likely be fought across towns in the north and she may represent Labour’s greatest asset at understanding their interests and desires. ‘Beyond the Red Wall’ has the potential to form Labour’s election manifesto – and perhaps determine its direction for years to come. It is an excellent read and I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone seeking to interpret this new electoral battleground that has been so consequential to UK politics and will undoubtedly remain so.