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Don’t stereotype Red Wall Tories, Boris The Conservative party's new supporters aren’t really that different from their old ones

Does the PM understand the voters behind his landslide? Credit: Frank Augstein - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Does the PM understand the voters behind his landslide? Credit: Frank Augstein - WPA Pool/Getty Images

November 19, 2020   5 mins

With Dominic Cummings now gone from No 10, the spectrum of Conservative thought is jostling to try to shape the Government’s future direction. What is Johnsonianism now that the great Brexit brain is no longer steering things? The debate now seems to centre on two competing visions of what the PM might stand for, and different ways of doing politics. Does he change tack, and liberalise? Or does he continue as per the 2019 win?

The first approach has been heavily linked to Symonds, who is seen as a social liberal in the Cameronite mould, and who wants to emphasise environmental issues: evidenced by past campaigning activities and a close relationship with Zac Goldsmith. It also advocates a change in political approach, too. Symonds, along with Allegra Stratton, the PM’s new spokesman, is seen to want a less confrontational approach with “the Establishment”, an end to artificial “culture wars”, and to bring more backbench MPs into the fold. This camp hopes to see Johnson return to his policy platform as Mayor of London – “greener, kinder, gentler and more female pitch to a more familiar Tory audience”, as Paul Goodman described it.

In the rival corner, quick to the stump was Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse (remember that?) minister and head of the new Northern Research Group, a lobby group of around 55 Conservative MPs who want a post-Covid recovery roadmap for the North of England. Members of the NRG “voiced concerns that overtures from the prime minister to socially liberal voters on green and cultural issues risked jeopardising their seats.”

Who’s right? Well, let’s look at the data.

I’ve taken as my source the British Election Study — a large scale survey of voters across Great Britain. I’ll be using waves 17, 18 and 19 — conducted between November and December 2019 — to explore the views of four distinct group of voters:

  1. Those who voted Conservative in 2019 in a Red Wall seat
  2. Those who voted Conservative in 2019 outside the Red Wall.
  3. Those who switched to the Conservative Party in 2019 in a Red Wall seat
  4. Those who switched to the Conservative Party in 2019 not in a Red Wall seat.

The first area of interest is environmental protection. When asked whether they think environmental protection has gone too far, Red Wall Tories are more likely to think it has gone too far compared to non-Red Wall Tories, and the result is statistically significant. However, it’s important to note that both groups still lean towards “not gone far enough” (2.6 vs 2.7, with 1 = not gone nearly far enough and 5 = gone much too far). The same is the case for those voters who switched to the Tories.

OK, green sceptics might say, that’s fair enough — but when we’re recovering from Covid-19 we can’t sacrifice the economy or economic growth at the altar of green policies.

Well, when asked which should have priority — economic growth or protecting the environment — all groups of Tory voters lean towards protecting the environment. On a scale of 0 to 10, with 5 being the middle option, the average Red Wall Tory position is 5.1, compared with 5.2 for non-Red Wall Tories. For switchers, the gap is bigger: non-Red Wall switchers place at 5.5 compared to 5.0 for Red Wall switchers. Yes, it’s a relatively large gap between the two groups, but it still places the Red Wall switchers slap-bang between economic growth and environmental protection in terms of their priorities. Damian Green was not far off the mark when he said “to assume that no one in the North cares about the future of the planet is patronising nonsense”.

Finally, even when it comes to the more emotionally-charged phrase “climate change”, 63% of Red Wall Tories and 67% of non-Red Wall Tories agree that the world’s climate is changing due to human activity, while among switchers the figures are 68% and 65% respectively.

So, the data shows there is significant scope for Johnson to push for a bold environmental agenda — ideally combining economic growth with “green jobs” — as argued for by the assuredly non-woke, pro-Brexit Ben Houchen.

What about the woke agenda?

Unfortunately, the BES doesn’t ask much about trans rights or the role of the BBC — two hot button issues on Twitter — but it does ask about views steps towards ethnic minority, female and gay equality, and whether attempts to secure it have gone too far. This can give us a flavour of how these voters see issues of equality and whether there’s much mileage in Theresa May’s burning injustices agenda.

In all three cases, Tory voters and switchers, within and without the Red Wall, hover between “about right” and “gone too far”, although they are less hostile to measures for female equality than for ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians.

The differences between Red Wall and non-Red Wall voters (and switchers) is marginal across all three topics though, suggesting “going woke” isn’t a unique threat to the party’s new electoral coalition any more than it is to their voter base in general.

Finally, public spending. When asked on a scale of 1 to 4 how necessary reducing the deficit over the next three years was (and bear in mind, this was pre-Covid), all groups were closest to “It is important but not absolutely necessary”. There were no statistically significant differences between the groups either. When we couple this the fact that all groups thought cuts to local authorities had gone too far, we can see an easy win for the government: end austerity for local authorities.

This finding is complemented by polling carried out by Survation on behalf of the Local Trust. They asked 1,003 voters in 250 “left behind” areas about the government’s spending priorities. When asked if they thought their area got more or less than its fair share of spending resources, 4% said more and 42% said less.

But these voters gave mixed messages: 54% said they believed local people should lead decisions about how money should be spent in their area, but only 33% of the people said they would be interested in getting involved in making those decisions — they want to take back control but not use it!

From this analysis, it seems that Red Wall Tories – even the switchers — aren’t really that different from other Tories. Johnson should dismiss lazy stereotypes about what will and won’t wash in the party’s new heartland. These voters are not climate change deniers, they are not deficit hawks, and woke identity politics doesn’t get them fired up.

Instead, Johnson should follow Stratton’s advice and make his main priority building bridges (not only to Northern Ireland or across the Thames). He should reject Cummings’ abrasive, confrontational style of politics, and instead bring in a diverse range of Tory voices in the policy-making process. The appointment of Neil O’Brien as chair of No 10’s new policy board is promising. But Johnson also needs to work the Commons tea-rooms and bring in representatives from the different Tory factions — the Northern Research Group, the One Nation Caucus, the Covid Recovery Group and the Common Sense Group should all feel like they have a seat at table, even if they don’t win all the policy battles.

The Prime Minister is not a details man. He is a vision man. And he doesn’t necessarily need to keep fighting the same fight as during the referendum campaign. But nor should he be listening to voices who make out Red Wall Tories are something they’re not.

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


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