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4 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:11pm

Is Labour focusing too much on winning over Red Wall voters?

The party is near-united on this strategy: but is this the only way to get back into No 10?

By Ailbhe Rea

We receive so many great questions for the You Ask Us section of the New Statesman podcast that we don’t manage to answer all of them. So we’ve decided to start writing up our answers to some of your questions, beginning with this one sent to us this week:

“Between 2017 and 2019, Labour lost as many voters to the Greens as they did to the Conservatives, and three times the number of either to the Lib Dems. Does it really make sense for quite so much of our politics to be orientated towards 300k voters in the ‘Red Wall’?”

A huge health warning should be slapped on this immediately: those numbers are factually incorrect. It isn’t the case that Labour lost as many votes to the Greens as it did to the Conservatives in 2019, or that it lost the highest number to the Liberal Democrats. Opinium’s poll on the day of the 2019 general election found that 11 per cent of those who voted Labour in 2017 voted Conservative, 9 per cent voted Liberal Democrat, and 2 per cent voted Green. Ben Walker, the New Statesman’s data journalist, has drawn up this helpful graphic of overall voter migration at the 2019 general election.

Voter migration, 2017 – 2019
Electoral Calculus analysis of voter migration from the 2017 to 2019 general elections

The source of the numbers in the question is interesting. One pollster I spoke to suspects that it may have originated from a leaked internal report for Labour in mid-2019 that suggested hypothetical worst-case scenarios from when the party was losing support to pro-Remain parties. Scenarios set out in the report may have entered into common political parlance as facts about the 2019 general election. 

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Secondly, the reference to “300,000 voters” in the Red Wall also appears to be mistaken. The total number of voters in these traditional Labour heartlands would be much higher than 300,000, as would be the total number of people voting Conservative in those seats. We also don’t have a precise breakdown of Labour-Conservative switchers on a constituency-level basis, which means the 300,000 figure is unlikely to represent those voters.

With apologies to the anonymous questioner if the 300,000 figure is a reference to something I’m missing, it seems possible that this number is, again, a misappropriated figure doing the rounds on social media. The total Conservative vote share in the UK increased by more than 300,000 votes between 2017 and 2019, and on social media people occasionally seem to think those 300,000 represent neat Labour-Conservative switchers. But again, simple sums around the popular vote aren’t the right way to think about vote switching.

The figures cited may be incorrect but the original question is worth asking: is Labour under Keir Starmer thinking too much about the seats in the so-called Red Wall, and, beyond that, focusing too much on winning back Labour-Conservative switchers?

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The first thing to emphasise is that there’s a difference between thinking about seats Labour wins or wins back and voters Labour wins, or wins back. On the question of seats there’s a strong case for focusing on constituencies in the north, the Midlands and Wales, which are the ones we refer to when we speak of the Red Wall, even though this actually conflates two types of constituency, encompassing historic swing seats, such as Bury North or Colne Valley, as well as seats that had only ever had a Labour MP before 2019, such as Bolsover. Labour needs to gain 123 seats at the next general election to win a parliamentary majority: if it is identifying those target seats based on the percentage swing required to win them, then these Red Wall seats make up 63 per cent of the constituencies the party would need to win for a majority at the next election, with 13 per cent in Scotland and 24 per cent in southern England. 

That swing-ordered list of seats also shows that most of those Labour needs to gain are in towns, rather than cities, and that a majority of them voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. Labour could, of course, radically re-envisage its seats and intended voter coalition to target a new path to a majority (by gaining even more seats in cities, for example, and building support in more affluent seats that haven’t voted Labour before), but that isn’t a view you’ll hear from anyone in Labour at the moment. The party and commentators are broadly in agreement that the Red Wall seats, plus those identified in the south of England and Scotland, represent the path to a majority, with data to support that view

[Hear more from Ailbhe on the New Statesman podcast]

I am very interested in whether there is an alternative route to a majority for Labour through the pursuit of a different voter coalition and different seats, but it’s harder to discuss or make the case for this given the lack of political appetite for it and, therefore, the dearth of research into it. The vacuum where an alternative approach could be is one of the reasons that the question above is worth asking.

That’s the view on seats: that it makes sense for Labour to focus on these constituencies given that they represent the bulk, but far from all, of the constituencies where the party needs to win again. That’s especially the case if you believe, as Stephen Bush argues in the latest podcast episode, that Scottish Labour won’t improve on its position as the third party until Labour begins to make gains in England.

There’s also an emotional case for the Red Wall, which is fundamental to how Labour sees itself. Most of the key figures in Labour simply wouldn’t want to forge a path to power that didn’t include its historic heartlands. (Rachel Reeves made a passionate case for winning back Red Wall constituencies in my recent interview with her.)

But then there’s the question of voters. The numbers above on voter migration in 2019 highlight an important and often overlooked fact: that Labour did lose roughly as many votes to the Liberal Democrats as to the Conservatives in 2019. It also lost many more to non-voting: many of Labour’s losses were caused by a failure to get its 2017 voters to turn out again. There are two caveats to this: the first is that Labour losses to the Conservatives are part of a longer process of attrition that actually saw the largest number of Labour-Conservative switchers occur during the 2017 general election when Theresa May was still prime minister. 

It matters where the votes that Labour lost to the Liberal Democrats, and to parties such as the Greens, actually were. Certainly lost votes to the Liberal Democrats in Kensington in 2019 meant that the Labour incumbent, Emma Dent Coad, lost her seat to the Conservative Felicity Buchan. But when compared with the votes that Labour lost directly to the Conservatives, the latter are arguably more electorally crucial. The Opinium pollster Chris Curtis says: “Winning over Tories is particularly useful for Labour because they count twice (one vote off the Tories, and one more for you) in Labour / Conservative marginals and ultimately, there are more of them in Conservative marginals.” 

The votes that Labour lost to the Greens and Liberal Democrats are also thought to be weighted towards seats where the party invariably wins in any case. That’s the main argument for targeting socially-conservative voters at the risk of alienating the left: Labour’s gamble is that most of its new core vote will remain supportive and that even if some voters do desert the party, more votes for the Greens in a seat such as Diane Abbott’s in Hackney North and Stoke Newington would barely dent her majority of 33,188.

So there’s an argument that winning back Conservative voters is the priority but it plainly isn’t the only task. What we saw when Labour was polling well last year was that its recovery saw it projected to win back 36 of the 45 Red Wall seats it lost in 2019. This wasn’t mainly by attracting Conservative voters back to Labour (it has struggled in that regard), but by recovering its lost Liberal Democrat votes. In some Red Wall seats, winning back those who voted Lib Dem due to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership or Labour’s Brexit stance could be enough to regain the seat. But that isn’t necessarily an argument for focusing on liberal voters: to date they have been the easiest to win back, while Labour is still struggling to win back Conservative voters.   

These are some of the calculations around the seats that Labour needs to focus on winning back and the kinds of voters it needs to regain them. But the third part of the question is whether Labour is focusing too much on one kind of imagined voter: the kind of beer-drinking, socially-conservative working man (it always seems to be a man) evoked by so much of the journalism on the subject of “Red Wall voters”. It’s a question not only about whether Labour should be targeting particular seats, or recent Labour voters, but a more specific one about the party’s strategy and the identity of the target voter that the strategy implies to some people. It’s about incidents that have recently antagonised plenty of Labour activists, as well as some of its MPs: one example would be the leaked internal presentation suggesting that the party make “use of the [Union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly” to woo back voters. 

Ultimately, if Labour is to win a majority, it needs to win a large number of seats in its traditional heartlands and it needs to win voters from all parties: from the Conservatives (and we have seen why they are particularly electorally valuable), from the Liberal Democrats, from the Greens, from the SNP, from Plaid Cymru and from people who don’t often vote. This is not so much an argument about who Labour should be winning back, as how. That’s a question we’ll be asking, and Labour will be asking itself, for years to come.