Labour’s ‘red wall’ creaks as loyal voters consider other parties
Brexit has transformed traditional electoral battle lines. Can the ruling Conservatives win over Labour heartlands?
West Bromwich, United Kingdom – Something unusual is stirring in this red-brick market town, and Ed Renyard senses it.
Looking down the high street, he predicts an electoral upset as the United Kingdom hurtles towards its snap election on Thursday.
“A defeat here might teach the Labour Party to wake up and listen to the people,” says the 27-year-old former Labour supporter, his flat cap sheltering him from the rain.
“I’ve lost faith in them. They have broken promises … the country voted in favour of Brexit but they have turned away from that.”
He is not alone. Here in West Bromwich East, home to around 65,000 voters, and throughout Labour’s so-called “red wall” of post-industrial strongholds in the Midlands and north of England, long-standing political allegiances appear to be on the verge of shifting as Brexit transforms electoral battle lines.
Labour facing showdown in heartlands
The UK’s drama-filled bid to depart from the European Union has fuelled hope in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party that it could thread together a string of victories in their main rivals’ heartlands.
Johnson says a Conservative government would “get Brexit done” and take the UK out of the EU by the end of January 2020 – a message designed to consolidate support among his base and lure disgruntled, pro-Brexit Labour voters into switching sides.
His message appears to be gaining traction, with YouGov data suggesting 44 seats are set to swing from Labour to the Conservatives, including West Bromwich East, and other constituencies which voted in favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
A realignment on that scale, analysts say, could hand Johnson the victory he craves to catalyse the UK’s EU exit with his withdrawal agreement.
“If the Conservatives can make gains in the Midlands and parts of the north, then it’s game over for Labour,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at the Queen Mary University of London.
“That’s where the swing seats are for the Conservatives … [And] it does look as if years of Labour voting legacy is about to crumble.
“I think the combination of getting Brexit done and Jeremy Corbyn has just proved too much for some people.”
‘I want Brexit done’
Corbyn, Labour’s left-wing leader, has tried to appease both Brexit camps – Leavers and Remainers – by pledging to renegotiate a softer divorce deal than Johnson’s and put the revised withdrawal agreement to a referendum, alongside the option to remain, within six months.
But that position has been difficult to sell to voters in pro-Leave areas such as West Bromwich East, a seat represented since 2001 by Tom Watson, Labour’s pro-EU former deputy leader, who recently stood down as MP.
Nearly seven in 10 locals voted to leave the EU, compared to 52 percent nationwide.
Many here are angry that nearly three and a half years on Brexit remains undelivered, and they see Corbyn’s promises as muddled.
“That’s why they are potentially going to vote in such a way that will get in someone who will deliver that,” Renyard says, taking a brief pause from campaigning for George Galloway, an ex-Labour politician and pro-Brexit independent candidate.
“Many people are looking to the Tories. It has been three years, it should have been done and dusted by now.”
Market trader Dave Jones is among those turning to the Conservatives.
A self-described floating voter, the 62-year-old says he has backed the Labour Party in the past and voted for leading-Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in this year’s European Parliamentary elections.
Now, however, he backs Johnson because of Brexit.
“I want it done, and I trust Boris [Johnson] to deliver it if he can win this election outright,” Jones says, as shoppers nearby flit between stalls selling saris, jewellery and West Bromwich Albion Football Club kits.
“Going back to the other parties, Jeremy Corbyn can’t make his mind up on what he wants to do. There are fors and against Brexit but all I want back is our control of our borders … and I think we should be able to deal with our own laws.”
The Conservatives are currently tracking ten percentage points clear of Labour, according to aggregate polling, with 43 percent of voters saying they would vote Tory if an election were held tomorrow.
A major YouGov study released last week predicted the party was on course to win 359 seats – including West Bromwich East for the first time in history – in the 650-seat House of Commons.
Such an outcome would give Johnson – who had promised to deliver Brexit “do or die” by the end of October before being forced to backtrack after a string of defeats in Parliament – a comfortable working majority.
In West Bromwich East, where Labour won by a 20 percent majority in the UK’s 2017 general election, party activists and supporters busying themselves at the local campaign headquarters admit they face an unprecedented battle.
“I would be very surprised if we didn’t win, but I don’t think it is going to be a landslide by any stretch of the imagination,” says Laura Rollins, 36, a volunteer communications and social media officer for new local candidate Ibrahim Dogus. “I think it is going to be close.”
Jackie Taylor, a local Labour councillor and lifelong Labour supporter, is also confident of rebuffing the Conservative’s challenge in West Bromwich East – headed by Nicola Richards – but warns Labour must make sure voters “see the wood for the trees” on Brexit.
“Brexit is the main issue and it is the issue [for voters] of ‘we voted out and your party is not listening’,” says Taylor, 58, while Dogus and a clutch of volunteers prepare for another day of doorstepping.
“People warm to that personality, the lack of complication and simplicity in Johnson’s message – that he’s the man to get Brexit done and he will get this done.
“However, Brexit is not simple, we are dealing with the complexities of people’s lives and that is what we need to be getting across to the citizens of not only West Bromwich East, but to the whole of this country.”
Voters cool on Corbyn
Aside from Labour’s headaches in its heartlands, the party is struggling to sell Corbyn to hordes of voters apparently cool on his leadership credentials. Polling suggests he is widely unpopular.
Some 61 percent of Britons have a negative opinion of him, according to YouGov, compared with 47 percent for Johnson. The Labour leader is, however, seen as more trustworthy than Johnson.
“Although people talk about Brexit as being a problem for the Labour Party, I don’t think it is anywhere near as much of a problem as Jeremy Corbyn is,” explains Bale, adding that some ex-Labour voters were “coruscating” in their assessments of the leader.
“They see him as unpatriotic, weak, unlikeable, indecisive and incompetent … almost any kind of negative you can come up with, that’s what they will say about him.
“Although we live in a parliamentary system, not a presidential one, leaders are important for the way that people vote and you can’t have a leader that is perceived that negatively and win a majority at a general election.”
Back in West Bromwich East, former Labour supporter Reynard is stinging in his criticism of Corbyn – who pledged after the 2016 referendum to “accept the vote and move on”.
“Jeremy Corbyn for much of his life supported Brexit but he has broken promises on that,” he says. “Many people are wondering, if he does get into power, what else is he going to concede upon.”
Corbyn, a long-time eurosceptic, has pledged to shake-up the UK’s economy if he wins, with proposals such as income tax hikes for top earners and a nationalisation programme.
Meanwhile, at Labour’s local campaign headquarters, Rollins is unwavering in her support.
“Jeremy [Corbyn] has spent his entire life fighting against injustice and for equality,” says Rollins, who admits to having a small cardboard cut-out of the 70 year old in her living room.
“When the manifesto came out, and it might be for lack of sleep, but I did actually cry … If we can do half of what is in that, we would make everybody’s lives better,” she says, pointing out the “high levels of deprivation” in the area once known for its coal mining industry.
Despite the friction unleashed by Brexit, analysts say it remains to be seen if a decisive number of Labour voters will abandon the party when it comes to making their mark in the intimacy of the polling booth.
Some predict a low turnout in “red wall” constituencies, where the Conservatives have long been widely-detested.
“There is a cultural, generational sense of loyalty to the Labour Party even today, when, in most parts of the country, and among most voters, volatility has become the order of the day,” says Matt Cole, an historian and expert in British party politics at the University of Birmingham.
“British voters used to be more like supporters of football teams; you don’t choose it, you inherit it by geography, or family, or friendship group, and you never leave it, not with any respectability anyway.
“It doesn’t matter that the owner is a crook, that the manager is an idiot or the players are lazy. You might not go to as many matches or always turn out, but you never support another team – and that spirit of consistent loyalty and unwillingness to support the opposition remains strong in a very large number of Labour seats.”
For some, however, the allure of Brexit is too tempting.
“People used to vote Labour because they looked after the working-class man, years ago, but as I have got older I am doing my own thing,” says Jones from behind his market stall.
“If Corbyn had made his mind up and said we are going to leave, yes, then I would have accepted it and maybe would have voted Labour. But I can’t now, not with him as leader.
“Besides, I’ve already voted by post; and I voted Conservative.”