Don’t expect buyer’s remorse – it is going to take hard slog to rebuild the Red Wall

by Jo Platt

This piece is part of a new book “Labour’s Reset: The Path Back to Power” released yesterday. Click here to download it. The book looks at the barriers for voters in picking Labour, what the party can do in opposition to tackle these issues and the type of policy platform that would attract switchers to Labour at the election

People in Leigh call their neighbours in Wigan ‘pie eaters’. It is not a comment on their culinary habits; it refers to the 1926 general strike where Wigan miners were said to have gone back to work sooner than those in Leigh. It is hardly surprising, then, that the parliamentary seat was solidly Labour from 1922 onwards. (And Liberal before that, with the Manchester Guardian owner, CP Scott, once representing the town.)

That was, of course, until November 2019. I was the unfortunate losing candidate – after first being elected in 2017 – as Labour was mown down, not only in dozens of so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats, but in the traditional coal and steel seats that today have Conservative MPs.

Coal and steel seats

For Leigh, read Bassetlaw, Blyth Valley, Bolsover, Redcar, Rother Valley or Penistone and Stocksbridge. These are places where Labour is in the local DNA, but they all fell to the Tories, many for the first time in decades, if not the first time ever. In fact, if it was not for the Brexit party splitting the Conservative vote, things would have been much worse and we would have lost dozens more seats, with even places like Barnsley – the epicentre of the Miner’s Strike – in danger of turning blue. (The absence of the Brexit party helps to explain why we lost the Hartlepool by-election in May.) All of which is an around about way of saying that we should count our blessings. The hole we find ourselves in as a party could have been even deeper.

Horrific campaign

Let me return to the 2019 campaign. Our experience on the doorstep was just awful. In fact, horrific is the word I would use. It was a hot reception – and, also, an icy one. Hot in that everyone seemed angry. The voters had turned against us emphatically, and there were lots of slammed doors and raised voices. Icy, too, because even people I knew personally were telling me they could not vote Labour and were just sorry this would mean I bore the brunt and that this was ‘Nothing personal’.

People I did not know first-hand were considerably less polite. Every door we knocked on was critical of the leadership and every other door was angry about our position on Brexit. Throw in a few local issues and you had the perfect storm, with Labour, both nationally and locally unpopular, and a big, divisive issue like Brexit that we were on the wrong side of.

You could sense the mood harden after the party conference in 2018. Emails to the office and social media responses became noticeably more antagonistic. Our position on Brexit – where we promised to renegotiate the Conservatives’ deal and put the outcome to a second referendum along with an option to remain – was utterly toxic. Voters thought we were taking them for fools. Our position at the 2017 election made more sense. Brexit had happened, and we needed to accept it and move on. That is want voters wanted to hear from us. Now, we were trying to usurp their decision, as they saw it.

Neither did they think we were credible as a party of government. It was as simple as that, and perceptions of Jeremy were horrendous. You could sense the Tories’ attack messaging was cutting through. ‘He’s an IRA sympathiser’ was just one of the comments that routinely came up. Of course, the media’s concerted demonisation of him hardly helped, but we were not in good enough shape nationally to rebut the criticisms. Locally, they stuck.

We also had too much policy. It often felt like the Generation Game, with commitment after commitment passing along a conveyor belt. Yet on some really important issues, such as Universal Credit, which is massively important to many poorer families in Leigh, we only had a bureaucratic response, promising to eventually get rid of it but conceding that ‘major policy change can’t be delivered overnight.’

In places like Leigh, and in many other northern heartland areas, people have real problems that require urgent attention. There is a lack of jobs, housing, and access to decent public services as well as problems with crime. They want practical solutions from politicians. It is not enough to ‘make a point’ or to ‘stand for something’ we need to get things done and make a tangible difference. Yet we totally lacked focus. I even had a woman who was extremely animated about a manifesto pledge we had about planting more trees. ‘What bloody good is that to me?’ she complained.

Repairing the damage

Is the spell between Labour and the northern working-class broken? Yes, I think it is. Can we fix the damage? Yes, but things will not simply snap back into shape. It would be a mistake to think 2019 was just an aberration. We need to be clear: the destruction of so much of our political heartland was not simply the result of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Brexit. Both were big factors and are ‘off the books’ for next time, but the rot set in a long time ago.

Those who think our traditional voters had nowhere else to go need to think again. And many in the party did think there was no other choice for our working-class supporters than to dutifully keep on voting Labour, election after election. Memories of the Tories were often enough to pull them back into line, but that simply does not work anymore. So we need to mature the relationship, move away from blithely assuming people in places like Leigh will back us, regardless, and start providing them with clear reasons to do so.

We need to deliver transformational economic change. Boris Johnson’s claim about ‘levelling up’ needs to be shown-up for the empty slogan it is; but let us also force him onto our ground and offer a clear alternative to voters in response. There is still a palpable sense of loss about the decline of previous industries, which, while hard to work in, still provided people with stability, decent wages, job opportunities and the chance to bring up their families in close-knit communities with shared values and institutions. Our MPs need to be changemakers locally and be instrumental in bringing jobs and investment to their constituencies.

I live in Leigh and I am not going anywhere. I have dusted myself down, got back up, and I am now involved with a new co-operative movement, breathing life into Leigh Spinners Mill. We have a range of small businesses, groups and leisure providers working together to give the community a valuable new resource while also rescuing our heritage. It is one of the finest examples of a surviving cotton mill, and a constant reminder for the town of how working-class community was formed here and thrived.

So this is where we start again. At the grassroots. Being active in our communities. Making a difference. Rebuilding our credibility. Labour can recover in the Red Wall – even in the coal and steel seats – but we must not assume that voters there will have buyer’s remorse about their decision in 2019. It is going to take determination, focus and hard slog to recover what we have lost.

Jo Platt was the Labour MP for Leigh (2017–2019).


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11 Responses to “Don’t expect buyer’s remorse – it is going to take hard slog to rebuild the Red Wall”

  1. A.J. says:

    A good, honest post. A lot of good Labour people went down – for a variety of reasons. Toxic? You bet.

  2. A.J. says:

    Are they not now ‘the former coal and steel seats’? The town I live in was once heavy on textiles but with light engineering, foundries, some mining around the edges (not much), but is now just a would-be trendy suburb. Labour do okay here locally; not otherwise. The Party is still in a bind, not knowing which way to face.
    Probably, though, one of the best posts I’ve read on here.
    Just to reflect on a point mentioned elsewhere, I like Stephen Kinnock. Met his father once and liked him, too. British political life had more definition in the 80s, Jo.

  3. Tafia says:

    from elsewhere

    What most people don’t seem to get is that Keir Starmer isn’t the fundamental reason Labour won’t win the next election. Corbyn wasn’t the fundamental reason they lost in 2019, and Miliband wasn’t the reason they lost in 2015. The reason is that the Labour party’s traditional voter base has deserted it, and it’s not coming back.

    For a long time, not-wealthy people in traditional working-class jobs, living in dense towns throughout the midlands and north would, without fail, vote Labour, because Labour was their party: their MP would commonly be from their community and have a family and labour history which was nearly identical, or at least strikingly similar, to that of the typical voter in that town or city. Cut to 2021, and that sense of social solidarity and class politics is gone, and those people are eitherstrongly pro-Brexit, or, like me, voted Remain quite ambivalently and now understand that what’s done is done. The pro-Brexit ones who a generation ago were represented by anti-EU Labour members are now Tories and never returning. Labour has tried to replace those voters with social liberals and university students. It has failed. There aren’t enough of them. In destroying the labour movement, Thatcher ultimately won a victory that may never be undone.

    I think there are two things that the pro-Remain dead-enderswho always post in the comments here never seem to realise: firstly, their own class position (overwhelmingly upper-middle class professional types) and how it makes them very untrustworthy to the majority of working-class people, who still instinctively understand that their interests are opposed to those of professional-class liberals.

    Secondly, that not even everyone who agrees with them, agrees with anything like the same fervour that they have. I was lukewarm pro-Remain in 2016, but I’ve moved on. Higher wages for working people is a good thing, and it’s clear that EU immigration was holding those wages down. The best hope for increasing the bargaining power of the working class has been the overwhelmingly Tory scheme to leave the EU, and that’s about the greatest indictment of the Labour party imaginable.

  4. John P Reid says:

    this fella ex member who quit over Starmer trying to stop brexit tom bewick on gb news

    should be listened too https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNyw-z3NOJk

  5. John P Reid says:

    the problem is the level of getting the red wall back would take those who kept saying before the election it’s a myth we’re gonna Lose it
    and those sorts be they Polly Toynbee, Starmer or Ash Sarker won’t get on their knees beg forgivness even though they’ve been told that’s what they need to do

  6. wg says:

    @Tafia

    I don’t understand how the present Labour set up can’t understand this.

    Political success depends upon trust and loyalty.

    I can lay out a timeline of where, and how, the UK’s C2s/Ds/Es moved away from Labour – Sunny Jim’s 5% pay rise limit with inflation going through the roof, miners’ strike, winter of discontent, Thatcher recognising the working class’ small ‘c’ natural conservatism, Kinnock’s – and Labour’s – dalliance with an exploitative and corporatist EU, the bullying Regional Assemblies, the Common Purpose-led assault on local democracy, the university elitist art-over-need university domination of our cities, open-door to cheap labour with no training for our young – the list is endless.
    The weird woke stuff is now an addition to that list.

    The two most telling quotes of recent years:

    On migrant labour – John Reid: “The Treasury insisted on having a free flow of labour because they thought that brought down the cost of labour,” Hardly an endorsement for higher wages.

    On the direction away from those important C2s/Ds/Es – John McTernan: “The truth is that the white working class are not Labour’s base any more.”
    “It is the professional middle classes, together with the young, and black and minority ethnic voters, who are Labour’s base now.”

    Labour intended to happen what is happening – it’s just weird that they don’t grasp this very point.
    The ‘red wall’ feel betrayed – they have had years of being mocked and marginalised: Keir turning up with personal schmaltz and smiles ain’t going to work.

  7. steve says:

    “We need to deliver transformational economic change.”

    Well, that’s exactly what Corbyn promised and that’s why you got rid of him.

    And that’s why a northern electorate, yearning for radical change and harbouring no illusions re the LibLabCon, voted to leave the EU.

    Your pronouncements may get a cheer at conference and also from Labour’s army of ‘communication consultants’/lobbyists wanting to be parachuted into safe seats.

    But as far as the rest of us are concerned, no parsnips are buttered.

  8. Timmy says:

    “Boris Johnson’s claim about ‘levelling up’ needs to be shown-up for the empty slogan it is;“ This phrase sums up a significant part of the problem. Sure levelling up hasn’t gone to plan because of COVID, but assuming it’s an evil Tory deceit is daft! What are you going to do when they announce all sorts of significant northern projects a year from the next election? Labour needs to publish its proposals now and make it clear how they will be funded

  9. Paul masons has decided on labour losing the working class over 30 that they’re re actually middle class and the metropolitans who rent like Owen jones are the new working class, So I’m not sure if labour even wants the working class Back, excluding the Muslims who didn’t want their kids taught transgender stuff,Sikhs, Hindus and Christian African people in London council estates of which we look at as embarrassing but if kept at arms length can be given crumb to come back to at election time
    But it’s the Traditional working class in the Shires who’ve walked away from labour who are not coming back who will shock labour in the next few years of how deep the problem is

    I know 2 ex labour voters who delivered for Attlee age just 7 in 1945 who both clashed with police in the 80’s dockers strike and wapping. With their later fathers whispering in their ear voted tory for the first time and 9 others similar who were a bit younger, who for the first time didn’t either vote or voted tory
    And with Starmer leader, they’re not coming back who aren’t coming back

    Others who say they Voted Labour 2017 as a protest thinking it was gonna be a tory landslide voted against theresa may and also voted labour in 2019 who don’t vote now who’d voted ukip in 2015 as a protest to get the referndum so they could vote leave who won’t vote for the key architect of Labour’s second referendum forcremdin ( Keir Starmer)

    I know 2 guy who’s late father lost their jobs under the Jack boot of the Tories 0n the scrap heep in the 1980’s Who never got a job again and never forgot it lived in council Homes ,Who Got their head kicked in by the National front arrested for the crime of being beaten up by the NF, Stopped, P word bashing in Southend, went on gay : lesbian pride marches, no one asked us about adding the letter T

    One through gritted teeth voted for Cruddas in 2017 said if Labour became a Nick Clegg strike orange book libdems party and the Tories had Rory Stewart as leader would vote Troy
    One who didn’t vote labour in 2019
    who said Under corbyn if we had AV in 2017 with theresa may in charge he’d sooner have the Tories as his 2nd choice having voted for a independent for his first choices,Plus I know 4 who spoilt their ballot papers who also went in those gay lesbian pride marches 35 years ago.

    Labour’s problem with this progressive alliance idea is thinking libdems 2nd choice I’d Labour it’s not same as when The SDP in the 80’s were around most their voters 2nd choice was thatcher yet labour now think of the labour voting working class have nowhere else to go

    I know a young Labour’s meeting they sat about eating pizzas wasting time discussing having the revolution
    think the working class are thick n racist and shouldn’t be allowed to vote ,then theresa MAY gave her blue labour style speech in becoming PM and within a year he’d joined the Tories.

    And I know Jamaicans Who quit labour vote tory and other Jamaican British people who Cuss them , as Jamaicans are the last lot of British black people who’ve gone over to the Tories as it’s Darren Henry all The black Tories who go to be MPs were Nigerian/African heritage ad other Jamaican British Tories who stopped for the doors to be elected failed to do so.

    black Jamaican Tories I knew Sat about discussing hoe the Africans sold them out as did Shaun Bailey Dwayne brooked and John Toylor as a British Jamaican once in the labour Party.

    It’s no different to 35 years ago as they Sat about discussing theres mythical ex
    Liberal/ SDP voted that enough to win in The 80’s

    WG that John Reid the other one was right

  10. Even if it takes a generation for the public to forgive labour over the 2nd referendum
    Anti semitism not knowing what a woman is,
    it’ll be the 1992 reason why we lost in 2030
    “They don’t trust us with their money”
    Look at tuition fees scrapping them that’s 12bn a year that could be spent in the youngest education teaching the most deprived

  11. He (Starmer) gave Reason to tell the working-class they’re
    Racist idiotic scum by being the ketones gator for the second Referendum
    Of remain

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