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The Blue Wall: a reply to the replies
Red Wall 2.0, Lib Dems etc
Thanks to everyone who subscribed and engaged with my piece on the ‘Blue Wall’ last week. Future editions of this newsletter will be lighter on the amateur psephology, but because I got more engagement than expected I just wanted to tie the bow on it by responding to some of the polite objections I got.
To recap, my argument was that there is an emerging liberal electoral battleground – one that the Conservatives are underperforming in - and that Westminster also needs to pay attention to rather than focus solely on the Red Wall.
Some common objections:
What about Labour underperformance in Red Wall seats it held?
The flipside of Labour overperformance in the Blue Wall is, of course, their underperformance in the Red Wall. Perhaps Labour losses here, and Conservative gains, may not have ended.
Matthew Goodwin makes this a big part of his very reasonable response to me. He points to Red Wall seats Labour clung on to but - because of consistent underperformance - now have majorities of under 4,000 and which the Conservatives could capture next time. He calls this ‘Red Wall 2.0’.
Matthew suggests that, if Labour underperformance here isn’t fixed, Tory gains could again swamp out any Labour gains elsewhere. Labour therefore can’t afford to gamble on anything other than Red – 1.0 and 2.0.
Leaving aside that I definitely didn’t suggest ignoring these areas, we can test his broader argument by doing the reverse of the calculations I did for Scenario 2 and 3 first time. That is:
Scenario 2: a national swing in line with Lab 37%-41% Con nationally, minus Labour underperformance from 2019.
Scenario 3 - a 40-40 national environment swing, minus Labour underperformance from 2019.
This is an extreme scenario - it’s really unlikely Labour will underperform as badly in these areas as 2019.
But even in the unlikely event it does, in both scenarios most of the Red Wall 2.0 seats are still safe. Labour loses 6 in Scenario 2, and 5 in Scenario 3. The extent of the national swings save Labour in spite of its local underperformance.
There would be losses of valued MPs like John Healey (who I knew a bit in my Shelter days and think is brilliant), Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband – but it’s not a wipe out.
And remember that even in this pessimistic scenario, it will still be winning back the tighter Red Wall 1.0 marginals, some of the more conventional swing seats (e.g. Bury North) and then adding Blue Wall ones too. The Tory majority is therefore wafer thin in Scenario 2, and demolished in Scenario 3.
Viewed brutally, then, Labour can focus on building that decent national swing rather than worry too much about its distribution re: defensive marginals.
The massive caveat here, and where Matthew could be right, is the Brexit Party vote. Arguably a large Brexit Party vote in these seats in effect hid or ‘muffled’ the extent of the swing to the Tories by depriving them of socially conservative voters. Perhaps next time, without the Brexit Party, Labour’s underperformance – and thus their losses - will be far greater there.
That is definitely plausible. The overwhelming majority of that Brexit Party vote could go Conservative, which would spell big trouble for Labour in the Red Wall 2.0.
But it’s also plausible that the BXP vote is messier than that: after all, why would they not vote Tory in 2019, at Labour’s nadir, then do so in 2024? While a plurality will go Tory, many could end up not voting, or vote for protest parties, while others return to Labour in a favourable national environment.
This is one of the big known unknowns shaping the next election. We may be about to get some hint out of Hartlepool, which is one of the really interesting things about the contest there.
All this is not an argument for complacency, but it is one against over-simplification.
Finally, Matthew says Labour can’t consolidate the Remain vote – but it was doing so as recently as January.
Ok all very interesting. But why, beyond men arguing on the internet, does any of this actually matter?
In short, because your view of the balance between Red and Blue Walls tends to shape more than where you think Labour (or the Tories for that matter) should spend its finite campaign resource. It also shapes how you think they should deal with divisive culture war issues - since these are largely what lurks behind the country’s electoral realignment.
Of course, one’s personal views on these issues shapes that too, as it should, but the reality is that in Westminster morality and electoral expediency intermingle.
So if you really heavily weight the importance of Red Wall seats, you’re more likely to think Labour should move strongly to the right on those issues (immigration, civil liberties, race relations), and treat Blue Wall seats as a nice extra or collateral damage.
If you strongly emphasise ‘Blue Wall’ seats, you think the opposite: ‘lean in to the liberals’. Danny Finkelstein recommends this for Labour.
If like me you err towards ‘mix and match’, you think it should try and de-escalate those cultural issues while emphasising economic axis ones.
None of these options are easy (affecting issue salience from Opposition is epically hard), but my argument would be that the first option - for all its distributional efficiency - also has underestimated risks attached to it for Labour.
Whether one likes it or not, a large chunk of the Parliamentary party will not wear a really significant shift to the right on cultural issues, and neither more importantly will a large chunk of Labour’s voters (we have seen how quickly Labour can bleed out Remain voters) – not just in the Blue Wall but the Red Wall too. The facts on the ground have changed too much; the party has been transformed.
Going all in on social conservatism – aiming at 2017 lost seats not just 2019 ones, for instance – could see Labour gamble away the voters moving towards it while still falling short with too many voters moving in the opposite direction because it can’t pull that shift off convincingly. That doesn’t mean hygiene isn’t required (that it’s seen as controversial for a Labour leader to stand next to the flag is frankly demented), but it can’t go out of its way to antagonise liberals in the way a lot of commentators demand.
For the Conservatives, the concomitant risk must be that they have already ‘maxed out’ the socially conservative vote they can realistically win after two elections fighting Jeremy Corbyn – and that over-pursuing them leaves the big Blue backdoor open.
A messier but more prudent approach would be to treat both Red and Blue Walls as important, along with Scotland. To the party who can bring these corners of our great country together goes the chance to own the future of British politics.
What about the Lib Dems?
I upset a few Lib Dems from excluding them from my projections. So I have gone back and looked at it. In theory, even in a tough national environment for them such as I based Scenario 2 on, they could win ten seats of these seats off the Tories if they overperform the national LD to Con swing there in the way they did in 2019:
Esher and Walton
Cities of London and Westminster
Finchley and Golders Green
Hitchin and Harpenden
South West Surrey
The trouble is that there has also been a strong LD to Lab swing. And, in reality, a lot of Labour’s rise in polls prior to their current dip was at the Lib Dem’s expense; their votes tend to eat one another. Some polls had Labour taking half the LD 2019 vote. If that plays through next time then Labour will be taking a fairly big chunk of their vote in these Blue Wall seats. That will limit Lib Dem overperformance, split their vote and see Labour leapfrog them in three-way marginals.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for the Lib Dems to make gains in places where Labour are a distant third and there is a genuine prospect of tactical voting – Esher and Walton (Raab) comes to mind.
But it’s hard to predict simply. That’s a limitation of modelling two party swings - you really need something cleverer like MRP polling to properly get at this stuff.
Personally I think it’s mad that Labour and the Lib Dems stand against each other in some of these seats, but that’s another matter.
Lastly, the place of the four Welsh seats (Vale of Glamorgan, Clwyd West, Monmouth, Aberconway) on my list was queried. One or two people said they are not moving under the same broad forces as the English seats I highlighted. They are slightly less Remainy, so in principle this checks out. But it is also true that the Tories have underperformed there in two successive elections despite making gains in other parts of Wales. If anyone has any alternative theories on why this is, please do send them to me – I’d be really interested to read it.
Yes I’m sorry for calling it a Wall. No I’m not sorry for aWoking’ing!
Thanks again for engaging.