Progressives can’t rely on a mass collapse in the Blue Wall for their path to national power.
Amongst an otherwise gloomy electoral picture for anti-Tory forces in England, there has been a focus on the one optimistic trend that right now seems to be going their way: the promise of taking the Tory “Blue Wall”. Like how Labour lost their post-industrial heartland seats to the Tories, the argument goes, so can the Tories loose their leafy shire outposts to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Some of this is helpful discourse, some of it is reductive, but either way, it cannot be denied that there’s a trend here and that in the medium to long term it’ll rewrite the political map in Britain, however; there are a few caveats here.
Why are these seats tending the way they are? Well, as we’ve seen, there has been a shift in voting intention when it comes to one’s education. For one reason or another, while the lowest incomes still trend Labour, and the highest incomes still trend Tory or Lib Dem, those with less educational qualifications trend heavily Tory, and those with degrees trend heavily Labour. These seats are Remain-voting, full of graduates, and have more young people as a result of folks being priced out of London, you can see why there’s a demographic shift.
The thing about the Blue Wall is that firstly, it’s a long way from some sort of magnificent collapse. The Tories are down on their 2019 performance there, and with the current direction this is likely to happen, as traditional shire Tories curl their noses at increased spending in northern seats, more homes built, and a more aggressively rightwing approach to culture war issues. However, they’re far away from the point Labour was at pre-2019, and it’s going to be several election cycles of this trend continuing before this offers more than a dozen seats max to the opposition parties at the polls. A dozen seats more for Labour, if it looses a dozen more Red Wall seats (as looks likely), isn’t the answer to their troubles, and is just standing still.
The other issue here is the question of if Labour can actually win and represent these places while still being a force for progressive politics. In many ways, it is doubtful: see the Lib Dem by-election win which was essentially a win for “don’t build houses” and some very curtain twitching regressive instincts. That’s the sort of politics a middle class party like the Lib Dems can do, but it doesn’t lend itself to a manifesto for mass council house building, or a radical investment lead domestic agenda, both of which would have to be prerequisites for any progressive force worth its salt looking to form a government in the 2020.
These seats are heavily anti-Brexit, and opposed to increased government spending on the left behind and more house building on the green belt. How can Labour win these seats when the majority of the seats it needs to win in England to form a majority government are leave voting seats. The parliamentary arithmetic means most of the battles will still be for Leave-leaning constituencies, which makes any Labour appeals to Remain-voting affluents in the south tricky; the silver lining here may well be the young. The young will be motivated by their material concerns, and we saw in 2017 Corbyn neutralise the Brexit issue and have strong industrial policies to win over the northern heartlands, combined with a radical domestic agenda in terms of scrapping tuition fees, council housing, and a defence of renters, all winning over younger voters more likely to lean-Remain and have degrees, helping him win some southern seats last won under Tony Blair. In other words, when it comes to forming a national majoritarian coalition in England AND making gains in the Blue Wall, Labour’s best bet remains talking about the bread and butter issues.
The Blue Wall is an intriguing trend, but the demographics and pitfalls means those most likely to gain there could well be the Liberal Democrats, and the challenges ahead meaning this is a long term trend not a short term fix. Labour needs to stop fantasising about a mass collapse of Tory heartlands and start thinking seriously about what agenda they’ll be putting out to unite a majority coalition in 2023, because right now they’ll be lucky to gain 20 seats, maximum.