The 'Blue Wall'
or the Great aWoking-ing, and the swing seats we're not talking about
Electoral battlegrounds matter not just because they decide who we are governed by, but how. If politics is ‘the art of the possible’, snap judgements by politicians and advisers about key voters – who they are, how we win them - shape what they see as possible, the issues they prioritise and the decisions they make.
At the moment there is a lot of emphasis placed on ‘Red Wall’ constituencies – left-wing but more socially conservative seats long held by Labour but won by the Tories in 2017 and 2019.
There’s no doubt these matter. But there’s also another set of seats likely to be important next time which get less attention than they deserve. There are what I’ll tongue-in-cheek call ‘Blue Wall’ seats: rapidly liberalising suburbs which the Tories have long held, but which are fast trending away from them.
What is the ‘Blue Wall’?
I think the best way of getting our arms around these constituencies is to set the following criteria:
Held by the Conservatives since at least 2010 (although in many cases long before).
Where Labour or the Lib Dems have overperformed their national swing versus the Conservatives in both 2017 and 2019.
Where, as a result, the Conservative majority now stands at under 10,000 votes – such that either Labour or the Lib Dems, or both, are within striking distance.
This produces about 41 Conservative-held seats, from a long list (majority >10k) of around 100. A compacted table is further down the page or a full screen interactive list is here.
This hit list includes seats of big-name Tories, like Steve Baker in Wycombe, IDS in Chingford, and Graham Brady in Altrincham – even Johnson himself in Uxbridge. But also Truro and Falmouth, Hastings and Watford, among others.
As you can see, they are mostly suburban areas in England, often on the outskirts of cities or large urban conurbations. They largely lean Remain and so have larger numbers of the demographics that have turned against the Tories since 2016: under 40s, university educated, more socially liberal. More likely to prioritise issues like climate or housing.
Some may be among the ‘precariat’ and the new working class, but most will just be young families on typical incomes.
As importantly, these areas are rapidly changing - importing more of these voters from big urban areas as house prices and rents rise, and older millennials look to settle down somewhere more affordable. It’s a trend that will accelerate if home-working becomes more established.
The politics of it all
These constituencies are the flipside of the Faustian bargain the Conservative party made with the cultural politics of English nationalism and social conservatism after 2016. As they leant in to those phenomena, they brought many traditional Labour constituencies towards them – but they also pushed many of their own the opposite way.
So far it’s a gamble that’s worked. In 2017 they survived because they clung on in just about enough of these areas, despite losing the likes of Canterbury, Battersea and Plymouth – in part because Labour or the Lib Dems split each others vote. And once you open up the sort of national swing they did in 2019, these local trends matter far less.
But were politics to become more competitive again, things might look quite different.
How many of them might the Tories lose to Labour?
To show exactly how, let’s play out three plausible scenarios in each of these constituencies. They are:
Scenario 1: a national Conservative to Labour swing of 3.75 points – in line with a recent Opinium poll - and these Blue Wall seats move only in line with that.
Scenario 2: a national Con to Lab swing of 3.75 points, as in Scenario 1 – but in addition to that, Labour overperform the national swing in each of these seats by the same amount it did in 2019. This is not an unreasonable expectation since they’ve overperformed there in the last two elections.
Scenario 3: a national Con to Lab swing of 5.75 points – this is what we’d expect in a 40%-40% national race, which feels unlikely at the moment but is not totally crazy - plus Labour overperforms its national swing on 2019 lines.
Fairly simply, where the Con to Lab swing generated is greater than the Con to Lab swing needed = Labour gain.
As you can see (full list here) in the graphic below, in Scenario 1, most of these areas are safe for the Tories – they lose only 6.
But in Scenario 2, even when they’re comfortably ahead in the national polls, the swing plus Labour overperformance means they lose 15.
In Scenario 3, Labour really run the board, winning 26 of these 41 Blue Wall seats (including, on paper, Johnson’s own - although you’d imagine as a sitting PM he survives). And these are conservative estimates.
If these seats continue to trend Labour against the tide, Labour doesn’t even have to be doing particularly well nationally to have a chance of taking them.
This dynamic exists because the Tory performance in these areas has become so unhooked from their performance elsewhere.
The Lib Dems are unlikely to gain in these scenarios at least, since most of Labour’s additional vote currently comes from them. But it’s not impossible if there is tactical voting or a really strong local campaign.
These areas alone will not cost the Tories an election – there’s not enough of them. But given that the national swing in these scenarios will be enough to see them lose razor-thin majorities elsewhere (including some in the Red Wall), the Tory majority starts to become imperilled in Scenario 2, and it’s definitely gone in Scenario 3. Neither of these scenarios need the Tories to fall beneath 40% of the national vote.
The above is not a fait accompli. It’s perfectly plausible that as the salience of Brexit politics recedes, these seats start to behave much more in line with the national swing (Scenario 1).
It’s also possible that Johnson regains ground with sufficient numbers of liberal-minded voters, while eating enough of the Brexit Party vote (we’re about to see if that happens in Hartlepool), that he crushes Labour at both ends of the map.
But sometimes political parties set off dynamics they can’t control. And No 10 seems to have lost none of its love for ‘triggering the libs’. It’s just there’s more of them, somewhat more strategically placed, than they perhaps think.
It’s at least plausible that Labour claws back the Red Wall seats it lost in 2019 but not those from 2017, recovers a bit in Scotland, then bolts on some of these Blue Wall seats on top. Much like Biden won by clawing back bits of the Rust Belt then winning liberalising states that were previously trending Democrat but where Clinton fell just short in 2016.
If Labour is going to get anywhere near power, as a minority or a majority, the path probably runs in part through these areas.
Along with the Red Wall and Scotland, Blue Wall seats are going to be one of three big battlegrounds at the next election.
On that basis alone, they deserve a greater place in our national conversation.
[Full screen version with workings here]
Briefly: what does the ‘Blue Wall’ mean for progressives?
Like most progressive movements in the post-industrial world, the British left is stuck between the voters moving away from it and those moving towards them.
This is especially acute for Labour, and they deserve a bit more sympathy from commentators on this basis. The difference on cultural issues between two battlegrounds leaves the party very little room for manoeuvre, since they form equally important parts of its coalition, and explains a lot of its recent agonies.
Its big strategic dilemma is how it strikes the balance between these two sets of voters. Some in and around the party are keen to jettison one at the expense of the other. But for both practical and ethical reasons, it can’t and shouldn’t do that. They therefore are left with trying to fix their underperformance at one end of the map while maintaining their overperformance elsewhere.
The only way to spring this trap is to find a consistent story about what unites voters in all battlegrounds: one of patriotic national renewal based on economic justice, and the redistribution of economic power. One which tries to raise the salience of economic issues over culture. Likewise, finding a way to not totally abandon the field on cultural issues, but also not unduly raising their importance.
NGOs and other progressive organisations need to help here, promoting their issues in ways which bridge these divides rather than unwittingly - or wittingly - play into them, whatever the short term incentives.
It’s not a task made any easier by me pointing it out, but it is the only way out. And on its shoulders rests any hope that we might one day live in a more united, more economically just country than we do today.