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20 May 2021

What Labour needs to do if it wants to demolish the Tories’ “Blue Wall”

To appeal to southern voters, Labour must talk more about Brexit and climate change and stop refighting old battles.

By David Gauke

Dear Labour Party,

I hope you do not mind this piece of unsolicited advice. I am all too conscious that political parties receive no shortage of this, especially when things aren’t going well. You might also question whether you want to receive advice from someone who considers himself a Conservative if not an enthusiast for the modern Conservative Party. But I promise, what follows is meant to be constructive.

The 6 May election results support the view that there is a political realignment under way. Traditionally, the Conservative/Labour divide was based on economic security. Now the picture is more complicated – poor places that are culturally conservative vote Conservative. 

The next stage of this realignment, presumably, is that prosperous places that are culturally liberal cease to vote Conservative. We saw some signs of this on 6 May in places such as Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Surrey and Hertfordshire where the Tories lost seats, although not necessarily to you, the Labour Party.

Demographic changes mean there are some London seats that might come your way at the next general election but are you thinking of being more ambitious? If you are, there are 40 to 50 seats (at a push) that are worth thinking about. Most of these constituencies have no tradition of voting Labour and many of them have very large Conservative majorities. But the majorities are smaller than they were in 2015, they voted Remain in 2016 and the populations are more diverse and better educated than the typical Tory constituency. These seats – mostly in the Home Counties – could be your “Blue Wall”.

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I have been giving some thought as to how you might win these seats, having a bit of experience of them myself. You might think what follows constitutes saying “if you want to win an election, appeal to me”, but to win these seats you will need to appeal to people like me. I also accept that a “Blue Wall strategy” won’t be sufficient to win an overall majority; I am not setting out how you might win back Hartlepool. 

With that acknowledgement, here are some thoughts on some of the things you will need to do.

DON’T try to refight the 2010 and 2015 general elections. I know it is tempting to argue that austerity left us unprepared for the pandemic but you won’t win over Conservative voters by saying “see, we were right all along and you were wrong”. Many of these voters don’t trust you with the public finances and you will need to win over some fiscal conservatives to win these seats. You are not going to become a small-state party, but politics is all about priorities and you could help establish your credibility by highlighting some wasteful expenditure. This brings me to Boris Johnson. The most important reason why you shouldn’t refight previous elections is that nobody associates Boris Johnson with austerity. The Conservatives have moved on, so must you.

DON’T be woke. Of course you should be on the side of those marginalised in society but you should listen to Tony Blair on this. The extreme cultural warriors are a gift for the Tories, even in their more liberal areas. Be prepared to criticise them.

DO highlight climate change. The people you need care about this. The Conservatives know this but to satisfy those voters the government will need to go beyond warm words and pursue policies that will be unpopular in the so-called Red Wall. My guess is that they won’t do that. 

DO target Boris Johnson. I know the Downing Street flat refurbishment didn’t cut through, but a tendency to break the rules isn’t something traditional Tories approve of. You will have to be persistent on the promise-breaking and dishonesty (not Johnson’s political incorrectness). Try not to be shrill, many of us find him likeable in his way, but he doesn’t always meet the standards that should be required to be prime minister. Lots of Conservative voters know that.

DO talk about Brexit. I know the difficulties but your progress in these seats depends on Conservatives who voted Remain. You don’t need to be a “Rejoin Party” but there is plenty of scope to highlight failings in the new arrangements. It also gives you the chance to be a pro-business party. Stop pulling your punches on this.

As for the leadership, I don’t think Keir is your biggest problem. Yes, he is too cautious, but one can imagine him in 10 Downing Street and he doesn’t frighten these voters like some I could mention. You could do a lot worse. Of course, if you really want to win these seats, Blair would be a lot better.

I expect you will conclude that this is the wrong strategy for you. It risks further losses in the Red Wall, it is not radical enough for many of your supporters and you don’t seem to be all that keen on Tony Blair.

But without the Blue Wall, I would be fascinated to know how you intend to deprive the Conservatives of a majority at the next general election, let alone win one yourself, given the new alignment in British politics.

My worry for you is that once you look at what is required for you to win here, it is apparent that this is beyond your capacity or desire. And I don’t know where you go from there.

Yours ever,

David

[see also: Keir Starmer’s tactful silence on the culture wars won’t lead Labour to victory]