With the Hartlepool by-election due to take place on 6 May, there is a big test coming for Labour and the Conservatives. When so much of what used to be called the “Red Wall” fell to the Conservatives at the last general election, Labour managed to hold onto the seat. But this is sure to be a close-run contest.
According to the latest odds offered by Ladbrokes, Labour is 4/5 to retain it. The Tories are only a nose behind though, priced as an even-money bet.
The Conservatives will be keen to continue their Red Wall progress, while Labour will be equally desperate to show that, under new management, it is doing much better. But are the politicians finally listening to those voters?
In my experience as the former Labour MP for Redcar, Red Wall voters are savvy. They are aspirational, they believe in their own skill and enterprise, personal responsibility and freedom. They are proud of their local areas, their identity and their culture. And they don’t want to be treated like children.
That’s why I was fascinated recently to read research commissioned by the betting standards body, the Betting & Gaming Council (BGC), which asked Public First to carry out a series of 20 focus groups – mainly in some of the Red Wall seats that flipped from Labour to Tory in 2019 and will prove pivotal at the next election – to explore attitudes to betting.
No one thinks that government policy on gambling is going to decide the outcome of the next election, but what these focus groups did give us was a window through which we can view some of the wider attitudes held by Red Wall voters.
From my knowledge of Redcar, what they found rang very true. People in those parts of the North and Midlands work hard and feel they deserve to enjoy their leisure. They like to spend their own money – often working long hours in tough jobs – how they want. And for many, betting is part of that, whether on The National Lottery, bingo or on their favourite sports like horse racing, boxing or football.
According to the government, the rate of problem gambling in Britain is 0.5 per cent and has been stable for 20 years. Several people in the focus groups did know someone who had had a problem with gambling. Rightly, they felt that problem gamblers, or those who are more vulnerable and more at risk, needed to be targeted for them to get greater help and support.
But when it was put to them that, under proposed affordability checks being considered by the Gambling Commission, everyone – even if they are one of the overwhelming majority of people who bet perfectly safely and responsibly – may soon be subject to an arbitrary limit on what they can spend before going asked to submit pay checks and bank statements, many Red Wall voters who took part in the research were outraged.
They felt it was an invasion of privacy and that it wouldn’t help problem gamblers. They said they would be tempted to bet elsewhere, and that they did not think that politicians or bureaucrats – however well-meaning – should set limits on how much they spend on a legal leisure pursuit. According to a YouGov poll on behalf of Public First, of voters across the UK, 51 per cent are opposed to limits set by politicians, compared to 27 per cent who support them. Some 22 per cent didn’t know.
Everyone has put up with a lot this past year. The vast majority of people have done their best to abide by the rules and have made huge sacrifices. But when this coronavirus period is over, people want to be able to enjoy themselves again. They will not tolerate a creeping paternalism from this government – including in areas of recreation like having a flutter.
Of those who were opposed to spending limits in the YouGov poll, 47 per cent said it was “because people should be free to spend their money as they wish”, with 37 per cent saying it was none of politicians’ business how they spend their money. The remaining 16 per cent gave some other reason for their opposition.
MPs also need to understand that betting is part of the culture in many of these communities. Several of the seats that saw some of the biggest swings from Labour to Conservative in 2019 have racecourses in them – like Doncaster, Sedgefield and Redcar. Sport and betting are part of the social fabric and identity of these places, as well as major contributors to the local economy.
The same goes for the football, snooker, darts, boxing and (especially along the M62 corridor) rugby league. The focus groups found that betting is an integral part of British culture and society. People bet for fun and enjoyment, and working-class audiences see it as a cultural pursuit.
Red Wall voters also see the impact around them of the economic ravages from the pandemic. Shops are shutting in already fragile high streets, friends and family are losing jobs, local sports teams are struggling. The economic contribution made by the regulated betting and gaming industry should not be underestimated.
According to a report by Ernst and Young, commissioned by the BGC, the Council’s members support 119,000 jobs, generate £4.5bn for the Treasury in tax, and contribute £7.7bn to the economy in gross value added. In addition, they give millions of pounds to some of the country’s most popular sports – including £350m a year to horseracing in sponsorship, media rights and the betting levy.
They won’t respond well to a government that curbs their leisure, tells them how to spend their hard-earned cash and threatens the viability of their local sports. A care worker in St Helens told her focus group that “the government shouldn’t interfere too much and if it did affect me, it would affect the way I’d vote”.
Labour, meanwhile, has huge ground to make up. In 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn, it was seen as out of touch and metropolitan. A moralising superiority, that suggests people can’t be trusted to spend their own money or enjoy themselves responsibly, will only serve to harden perceptions of a party that too many felt has moved away from them and doesn’t understand their lives.
Labour should avoid letting the Conservatives create another “culture war”. The party should always be on the side of British people who work hard, but have the right to their leisure and sport.
It is welcome that the government and the industry are taking steps to ensure betting and gaming is better regulated, protects the vulnerable and promotes safer gambling. Good progress has been made in this area in the past few years, but there is still much more to do. The Gambling Review will be a good opportunity to do that.
But politicians need to tread carefully and get the politics right, especially in Red Wall seats. Get it wrong and it’s bound to be a losing bet.
Anna Turley is the former Labour MP for Redcar and sports consultant to the Betting & Gaming Council