Adapt to survive: Can The Tories Make Room For The Traditional Left? | Bluebeard
The much coveted `Red Wall` seats Labour lost to the Conservatives at the last general election came as a surprise to many. Whilst I expected some marginal seats to fall, I was left drop-jawed as the result in Blyth Valley was announced. But how much should we really be surprised at the Blyth result? BES Research shows that the Conservative vote share in `Red Wall` seats has increased by 25% in just four years. Brexit clearly exacerbated the swing between the major parties, exemplified by a recent Britain Election Study, which shows that the percentage of voters moving from one major party to the other had reached record highs in the 2017 and 2019 general elections. Whilst Red Wall seats have come under increased scrutiny, it is important to recognise former safe Conservative Seats now held by Labour, and the swing to Labour in Tory Heartlands.
The transition towards Labour in former Tory strongholds can be traced to the expansion of the University class in the 1990’s. Take Hove, a former Tory seat which returned Tory majorities of 17 thousand in 1983 and 18 thousand in 1987, before eventually losing the seat to Labour, who now hold the seat on a 17 thousand majority. Bristol West is one of Labour’s safest seats, sitting on a majority of 28 thousand, however the seat was held by the Conservative`s until 1997 with majorities as high as 10 thousand.
The pattern continues in the former safe seat of Brent North, which returned a Tory majority of 15 thousand at the 1987 general election. The seat turned to Labour under Tony Blair`s reign and has since commanded a Labour majority as high as 17 thousand.
The most recent high-profile swing was in the former Conservative stronghold, Canterbury, which had exclusively returned Tory seats until it fell to Corbyn`s Labour in 2017. Labour`s majority in Canterbury was increased by 3% in the 2019 election, despite the Labour collapse across the country.
Much of the talk in the lead up to the 2024 general election will undoubtedly be about Labour`s prospects of winning back former strongholds in the North. It may be more prudent for Labour to set their eyes on Tory marginal seats in the South. Chipping Barnet, a seat held by the Conservative`s with majorities as high as 14 thousand since its creation in 1974, is now held by a vote share of just 2%. Chingford and Woodford is down from a high majority vote share of 27% to a measly 2% in 2019. Wycombe is another former Tory stronghold, having returned Conservative seats since the creation of the constituency. However a swing of 10% from Tory to Labour in the last two elections has cut the majority to just 4 thousand.
In the wake of the recent election results, many commentators claimed that Labour may never serve in Number 10 again. However, if Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings cannot stem the flow of Labour defectors in the middle class South, and the support for Tories in former Labour Heartlands dwindle once Brexit is finally put to bed, the Conservative dominance in British politics could be over. As I stated in a previous article in the Mallard, I give Labour little more than a 10% chance of governing after the 2024 election, given the size of the majority and the political landscape. However, longer term, as more Southern Tory Heartlands inevitably turn red, the Conservatives will come to depend on their support in the North and Midlands. This is a key moment in the future of the Conservative Party, and their direction of future travel needs to be planned carefully.
What the Conservatives cannot do is implement punishing austerity on already decimated former industrial heartlands. Matt Goodwin explains in his book with Roger Eatwell, National Populism, that the shift away from political traditions in the former Labour Heartlands was driven by a sense that government and the establishment did not work for ordinary people. Johnson`s government has managed, despite Conservative rule since 2010, to present itself as the anti-establishment. This cannot continue forever, and if government fails to address the deep-rooted issues in their new seats North of the Watford Gap, they will become part of that ever disappointing establishment and a return to Labour would be on the cards.
Election data shows that in 2015, 15% of `Red Wall` seats voted for conservative and 10% UKIP. In 2017, following the capitulation of UKIP, Conservative representation in the Red Wall was at 24%. Indicating nearly all UKIP voters had made the transition to Tory. It would prudent for Johnson and Cummings to target northern three way marginal seats, where the difference between Labour and Conservative is less than Brexit Party vote. These would include Yvette Cooper`s once safe seat, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford; Hemsworth; Stockton North; Hull East; Ed Miliband`s, Doncaster North; Hartlepool; and the former archetypal Labour seats of Barnsley.
Free Marketers and Thatcherites in the Conservative Party would need to make space for the traditional left to make their home in the once Southern dominated party. This will mean rejecting orthodoxies such as budget cuts and deficit controls in the face of economic stagnation and mass unemployment. The Tories need to prove to the north that they can be the party of Industry, meaningful jobs and infrastructure spending. Traditional working class left wingers are very different from their more radical middle class left wing cousins. They share some of the ways to life that are considered Tory, such as privacy, order, family and patriotism. The Tories should have no problem in holding both Surrey and Sedgefield as long as concessions are made on the economy and the role of the state. This is not to say that the Tories would have to increase tax, the age old radical left wing attack line. Very few working class people prioritise tax reforms. Furthermore, higher taxes are not conducive to full employment, especially in economic stagnation. All the residents of the industrial heartlands have ever wanted is a meaningful job, fair wages, better housing and good public services. Should the Conservatives provide this by the 2024 election, it is likely more Labour Heartlands will fall.
The first steps towards Keynesian-like economics can be seen with the current furlough scheme, which has increased deficit spending to war time measures. Proving the Tories are anything but sclerotic in their ideology. Johnson, Cummings and co must adapt to survive, and in order to survive, they must make room for the traditional left.
Photo by Pensioner Percy on Flickr.