March 11, 2020

The buzzphrase of the 2019 general election was the Red Wall — a set of parliamentary constituencies in the North of England and Midlands which historically supported the Labour Party. This was Labour’s heartland, seats it could almost always rely on to provide the core of its parliamentary support — especially since it lost Scotland in 2015. Last year saw this wall demolished, as life-long Labour voters switched over to the Conservatives, in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the Labour Party’s Brexit position.

In the build-up to the first budget with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, there has been much chatter about what the party should offer their new voters — with an implicit assumption that these new voters are somehow different from other Conservative voters. But are they?

The British Election Study recently released the latest wave of their long-term study, with fieldwork done immediately after the General Election. This allows us to assess the views of Conservative voters on a large scale, a large share of the 32,177 people who responded to the study.

I took all Conservative voters in the panel and split them into “Red Wall Tories” — those from the fifty seats in the North and Midlands the Conservatives won from Labour — and Conservative voters from other seats. From that, we can compare the two groups to see if there are any grounds for particular Red Wall policies.

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A good starting point is to look at voters’ placement on the Left-Right scale. Interestingly, Conservative voters in these new seats are more Left-wing than their Conservative counterparts, albeit only slightly; within the Red Wall Conservative voters place themselves at 6.5 on the scale, whereas those outside are nearby at 6.6.

This hides greater variance across the different measures of the political scale. While there is no difference between Red Wall Tories and their counterparts beyond the wall on whether big business takes advantage of ordinary people or there being one law for the rich and one for the poor, Tories in the Red Wall are more likely to think ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth and that management will always try to get the better of employees if it gets the chance.

So, there is some evidence that these Red Wall voters are more disgruntled with how the economy is structured than other Conservative voters. But they are not especially love-struck with the Conservatives; Red Wall Tories are not much different from other Conservatives on the question of whether the Tories will look after the working class. This budget might be a chance for Johnson and Sunak to change their minds.

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There is increasing pressure from Conservative supporters for the end of austerity. Tax Justice UK found that voters in the new Tory constituencies of Blyth and Wrexham were supportive of reversing austerity, with one respondent stating that  “public services are falling apart on a massive scale,” and that not one person called for tax cuts.  

This is supported by the British Election Study data — here we do not see any statistically significant differences between Red Wall Conservatives and non-Red Wall Tories. In both camps, majorities think that cuts on a national level have “gone too far” or “gone much too far”,  as have cuts to local government and the NHS. The latter will have only got worse with fears of coronavirus overstretching the NHS.

These Conservatives are consistent; they are aware of the trade-offs. For all the talk of a post-Brexit Singapore-on-Thames among free-market Tories, there is also little appetite for cutting taxes. A plurality of Conservative voters lean towards saying that the government should tax a lot and spend much more on health and social services rather than reducing tax and cutting spending. Hence the manifesto pledge to raise National Insurance thresholds might not have the electoral purchase Johnson hopes if it is seen as starving the state of funds.

Red Wall Tories also agree more broadly with fellow Conservative voters that while deficit reduction is important, it is not necessary (55% and 59% respectively), with a further quarter of both groups saying it is either “not necessary but desirable” or “completely unnecessary”. It seems that the age of Osborne is over, and among Conservative voters more broadly there is an appetite for higher taxes and higher spending. Sorry, Taxpayers’ Alliance, but perhaps Johnson was a bit too hasty in ruling out a mansion tax.

There are, however, some differences between the Red Wall Tories and their electoral allies.

Firstly, redistribution. When asked to rank themselves on a scale of 0 to 11, where 0 means governments should try to make incomes equal and 11 means government should be less concerned about equal incomes, Red Wall Conservatives are more favourable towards equalisation of incomes than their non-Red Wall counterparts (5.7 vs 6.3 respectively).

This could be because elements of universal credit have hit poorer communities particularly hard — especially the punitive long wait before the first payment is received. Addressing these concerns might go some way to shoring up Red Wall voters.

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Secondly, the environment. David Cameron famously tried to paint his party as an environmentally friendly one, hugging a husky to alert us all to climate change. The Tory was for turning, however, and in 2013 he allegedly vowed to “get rid of all the green crap” from energy bills. What would Greta say?

However, the public impact of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth alerted the British public far more to the scourge of plastic in the sea, and in Theresa May’s government active Environment Secretary Michael Gove was just about the only minister who was seen to be getting anything done during the 2017-2019 Parliament.

It seemed this concern for the environment has seeped through to Conservative voters across the country, with Red Wall Tories only slightly less supportive of measures to protect the environment. On a scale of 1 (environmental protections have not gone nearly far enough) to 5 (they have gone much too far), Red Wall Conservatives fall at 2.8 vs 2.6 for other Conservatives. This does not seem fertile ground for policies such as cuts to air passenger duty, and perhaps it could provide some cover for Rishi Sunak to unfreeze fuel duty — although this would be a risky strategy.

Finally, on a more esoteric note, Johnson’s hyping-up of a trade deal with the US holds some risk too. When asked if the UK should have closer ties with the United States or protect its independence, of all the parties’ voters Conservatives were the most supportive of deepening ties, with no difference between Red Wall and non-Red Wall Tories.

However, even then the average Conservative fell on the side of maintaining independence. To paraphrase Thatcher, Red Wall voters did not roll back the frontiers of the EU only to have them imposed by the Americans.

For all the talk of the Red Wall budget, Red Wall Conservatives are not so different from other Tories. Although they are slightly more wary of environmental regulation and take a more favourable view of redistribution, Conservative voters as a whole think austerity has gone too far, want to see more money spent on key services and accept that this means fewer tax cuts and no budget deficit. This is not what we’re typically told Conservatives want, and with his first budget Sunak should show he’s listening.

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