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Can the Tories cling on to the Red Wall? The Conservatives need a five-year plan to stop a swing back to Labour

The new Tory intake. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

January 6, 2020   4 mins

The story of the 2019 general election was how Labour’s “Red Wall” crumbled. The wall was the brainchild of James Kanagasooriam, used to describe “three contiguous groups of post-industrial, Leave-leaning seats — 63 in total — which, until today, had not had a Conservative MP in decades, but probably should have, given their demography”. These seats had remained Labour-voting for deep historical and cultural reasons but a mix of Brexit, distrust of Corbyn, and a frustration with gridlocked politics meant that 33 of them fell to the Conservatives.

The Tory wave began as soon as Blyth Valley turned blue, gathering pace through the West Midlands with both West Bromwich seats going Tory for the first time, and then perhaps most symbolically it engulfed Tony Blair’s old constituency of Sedgefield.

But if this was the story of 2019, there is a risk for the Conservatives that 2024 will be very different: if Brexit is done, and Labour select a more capable leader, a more volatile electorate might swing back to Labour after 14 years of Conservative leadership. How can the new candidates avoid this fate?

Firstly, Get. Brexit. Done. New MPs won these Red Wall seats on the simple pledge to deliver Brexit. The fate of MPs in the previous Parliament should be a reminder that very few politicians are bigger than their party — even the ones who the media like to talk up. If new MPs get cold feet and decide to oppose the Government on any Brexit legislation, the voters will know about it, and they will find themselves in the illustrious company of Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and David Gauke.

Secondly, spurn the trappings of Westminster and spend time in your constituency. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, MPs need a local profile. From my experience campaigning, when presented with the name of the Conservative candidate voters were much more likely to ask “is that Boris’s man?” than actually know who the candidate was. Building up name recognition will make your vote slightly stickier and help boost your incumbency bonus.

Similarly, spending more time in your consistency will help you keep track of the key issues in the constituency. Brexit seems to be the all-encompassing issue of our time, but let’s not forget how the NHS surged up the agenda during the election. Social care, transport infrastructure, skills and reviving depressed high streets will also be important, local, battlegrounds over the course of the next parliament.

With more cash floating around nowadays — for example, Johnson promising £100bn to keep the Red Wall blue – MPs need to keep their ears close to the ground to identify opportunities to push for more money for their areas. Even more important, they need to let the voters know that lending their vote to the Conservatives is paying off.

The third aspect of any new MPs’ five-year plan should be to get more data. In modern elections, data is power. MPs should be canvassing regularly in order to identify where these voters are and if their vote is holding up. Many of these red wall wins came as a shock not only to the national media but also to campaigners on the ground, especially since many constituencies have been unworked for years. In one consistency I was in, we were working off data from 2007, when I was still doing my GCSEs. The election in 2024 will be a closely fought one and the more up-to-date data the party has, the better it can campaign.

Data is doubly important given the upcoming metro mayoral elections in 2020. In places like the West Midlands, where Conservative metro mayor Andy Street scraped in on 50.4% of the vote in the second round, the Conservatives will need to rely on their new voters to help them hold on — and there is plenty of potential.

For example, in the 2017 West Midlands mayoral election the Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell went 54% for Labour and 27% for the Conservatives — but in the 2019 General Election the four constituencies which make up the borough averaged 54% Conservative, and 35% Labour. The party needs up-to-date data to find their voters, and make sure they turn out in these second-order metro mayor elections, which voters see as less important than general elections.

MPs should try to build the local party up in other ways. The most obvious is to use canvas data to target potential new members and volunteers (and remember that they are not necessarily the same thing). Campaigning, raising money, and recruiting people to stand in elections is much easier with members than without. Don’t expect too much from those who join, but provide a welcoming environment (and make sure you reply to emails). Most people never meet their MP, and politicos can forget that for some people it’s actually quite a big deal to see their elected representative.

A second way is to establish a base of local councillors. In the case of Sandwell, the local council has no Conservative representation in the council chamber — despite winning over half the popular vote in the General Election. This is low hanging fruit for the party and for new MPs. Despite the decline in power of local councils since the 1930s, councils still make a difference to people’s lives — potholes being a good example. It also gives MPs a friendly voice inside the council chamber.

Similarly, new Conservative councillors can help to expose waste and corruption arising from years of opposition rule in a borough, which looks great on a leaflet, and gives the party deeper roots in the community should the MP lose their seat.

The Conservatives have a once in a generation chance to build up the party organisation in these former Red Wall seats. The 2024 general election will probably be a much more difficult battle, and those new Red Wall MPs will need to do everything in their power to boost their chances.

David Jeffery is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.


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