Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Lauren White analyses why areas afflicted by poverty and deprivation have voted Conservative for the first time

The message from the Hartlepool by-election, which delivered a resounding Conservative victory, is pretty clear: the town wants change.

For more than half a century, much of the wider north-east of England has not changed its political allegiance. It has been staunchly Labour – the keystone in the so-called ‘Red Wall’.

Loyalty has not been matched by progress, however. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, nearly a third of children in Hartlepool were living in low-income families. In 2020, Hartlepool was named the third worst place for child poverty in the north-east. There is a ‘baby bank’ every Thursday from a constituent’s car boot.

To outside observers it might seem absurd to vote for the Conservatives when your area is steeped in poverty and disadvantage. But to people on the ground, in areas like mine, it isn’t so ludicrous.

Red Wall political fantasies are perpetuated by longstanding myths. For one, the assumption that voters in the north are bigots who are deeply sceptical of immigration. Next, the idea that everyone in the north-east is part of the working class, defined by manual, industrial labour.

In Northumberland, which has just elected a Conservative council for the first time, there is a great deal more wealth than in Gateshead. Even in Sunderland, a predominantly working-class city, council seats have been won not just by the Conservatives, but the socially liberal Greens and Liberal Democrats as well.

There is another factor in this voting shift, too. In 2016, Hartlepool voted 70% in favour of leaving the European Union. For these voters, Boris Johnson was on the right side of history. He is the man who, in their eyes, got Brexit done; the man who promised to give them control over their own lives. Control, in this case, is synonymous with better prospects, investment, and change – something that has not been delivered for decades.

Regardless of the party in power in Westminster, voting for the same local leaders for more than half a century and merely witnessing the slow decline of your area is bound to provoke a political backlash. Given that the Labour Party has treated these seats as ‘safe’ – parachuting in candidates from London while sending local activists out to campaign in other areas – it’s equally unsurprising that hostility has risen.

Let’s also be clear, while Brexit may have long-term economic implications for Red Wall areas, the vote has kicked central Government into action. ‘Levelling up’ may at this stage be a vague promise rather than a detailed manifesto, but it’s a commitment to the Midlands and north that has been borne out of the Brexit vote.

The people of the north-east have not forgotten the impact of Thatcherism. They are simply not willing to countenance another decade of stagnation and decline – and are not willing to sacrifice their futures on the altar of past wars.

If Labour Leader Keir Starmer is serious about climbing the mountain to Downing Street, he must treat the Red Wall with the seriousness it deserves. In the Gateshead council ward where I live, not a single candidate knocked on our door. If this is supposed to be a Labour heartland, the party must start acting like it is.

It’s important to understand that while Boris Johnson is very firmly a member of the elite that has neglected the Red Wall for decades – he is the chaperone of Brexit, the political landmine that for the first time jolted Westminster out of its apathy.

Now that the Conservatives are in power – both locally and nationally – they will own the future, both good and bad. This provides an opportunity for Labour – to hold Johnson’s party to account and to refresh its vision in opposition. And, more than anything else, to start listening again. Indeed, in English politics you should never underestimate the power of a leaflet. People want to hear regularly from representatives and prospective candidates in their local area – not just when they want our votes.

The Red Wall is not lost, but the structural factors that led to deep-seated anger towards the Westminster system and the Labour Party must be understood, before the party will be trusted again. Hartlepool wants change – and Labour must once again prove that it is the best vehicle to deliver on the hopes and aspirations of its heartlands.

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