The 2019 general election was triggered by Brexit but it has been defined by the historic defection of 50 “Red Wall” Labour seats across Wales, the Midlands and the North to the Conservatives – some for the first time in generations.
But while these “Blue Wall” seats have risen up the political agenda and underpin the government’s “levelling-up” ambitions, a nuanced understanding of their characteristics, challenges and opportunities has not grown to match. This matters, because clubbing these seats together as “old, left-behind Britain” both misdiagnoses these areas, and risks wrong-footing policy makers who want to support them.
For a start, people in Blue Wall constituencies are not old. In fact, they are distinctly middle-aged – with an average age of 41, just 0.7 years above the British average. This is why they represent a new middle Britain, in a country increasingly polarised by age.
It’s also untrue that people – and young people in particular – are leaving these towns behind to live and work elsewhere. In fact, what marks the Blue Wall out is a lack of movement. Few people are leaving and few people are arriving, either from elsewhere in the UK or from abroad. This low dynamism results in slower population growth in the Blue Wall than in other parts of the country.
Finally, it’s certainly true that Blue Wall constituencies are significantly poorer than traditional Conservatives seats – by an average weekly pay margin of £44 a week. But they are by no means the poorest places in Britain. In fact, typical pay is £7 per week higher than in Labour seats across the Midlands, the North and Wales.
What does mark these areas out is their relative economic decline since 2010. People’s pay packets have been squeezed tighter than in other parts of the UK; employment growth has been far weaker compared to the major cities; and house price growth has been sluggish. The past decade has not been kind to these former industrial heartlands.
The question for policymakers is therefore how to make the next decade better for the Blue Wall’s residents than the past one. Key to this is making these places better equipped to deal with a changing Britain – growing jobs in high-skilled industries, rather than just holding on to old jobs in sectors like manufacturing. Better transport and skills infrastructure will make a crucial difference – issues the government is rightly prioritising with extra capital spending on road, rail and cycle links, and a welcome emphasis on further education.
But while the Prime Minister is happy to talk about the coming “transport revolution” for towns across the Midlands and the North, he also needs to consider the more pressing revolution that is definitely coming in this parliament – the majority of the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC).
The government’s flagship welfare reform will create a complex mix of winners and losers across six million families throughout the UK. But our analysis shows that claimants in the North of England, the Midlands and Wales in general, and Blue Wall constituencies in particular, are far more likely to lose out than gain from the switch to UC. Tackling geographic divides will be significantly easier if the social security system isn’t going in the opposite direction.
At root, the government’s levelling-up agenda is about addressing vast geographic inequalities that have been around for generations. This is an agenda everyone can support. But what’s also clear is that the era of austerity has made tackling these inequalities even harder. The government’s levelling-up agenda is intertwined with its wider pledge to end austerity. For those living in the Blue Wall, it’s important that it delivers on both.
Laura Gardiner is research director of the Resolution Foundation and co-author of the new report Painting the towns blue