HMidway through this immensely readable compendium of local reporting, interviews and analysis, Neil Kinnock presents Sebastian Payne with a splendid anecdote from the 1974 election campaign. Making the rounds in his safe seat in South Wales, accompanied by a ” Theoretical comrade “named Barry Moore, the future Labor leader came out of the only Tory Street in the constituency with a flea in his ear. “I said to Barry and my agent, ‘What a bunch of bastards,’ Kinnock recalls. “And Barry said, ‘Yeah, but you better hope those bastards never organize.’ And I have remembered it to this day. Working-class conservatives are not an isolated crop that is cut off from the rest of the communities in which they live. They have relatives, friends, co-workers, drinking buddies. When an area changes, it changes quickly and suddenly. “
Broken heartlands is an exploration of how, in the December 2019 elections, there was a seismic shift towards the Conservatives across large swaths of the Midlands and the North of England. The collapse of the ‘red wall’ of secure jobs was a turning point in British political history. It handed an 80-seat majority to Boris Johnson and plunged Labor into an existential crisis from which it has yet to emerge. So how did Labor lose loyalty to the kind of people it was created to fight for? The Brexit confusion, Jeremy Corbyn, deindustrialization, the abandonment of New Labor, globalization, the ‘awakening’, the excesses of the far left and the impact of austerity – all have been offered in a partial explanation. Between the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021, Payne purchased a red Mini Cooper and embarked on a road trip to reach his own conclusions, following his own reports from the past few years for the Financial times. Having grown up in Gateshead in the 90s and 2000s, in a mixed political household, you can claim some northern fur in the game.
The result is a nuanced overview of a political landscape shaped by history, emotion, loss, and irregular regeneration. Payne visits 10 red wall constituencies in England, nine of which turned blue in 2019. At each stop along the way, he intersperses analysis and local footwork with a rich variety of interviews, involving a large cast of characters. A chapter on Blyth Valley, his first port of call, features a voyage with Dan Jackson, author of The Northumbriaand a talk with political philosopher John Gray, who grew up in South Shields. A meeting with former Blyth MP Ronnie Campbell and his wife, Doreen, is followed by a phone mea culpa from 89-year-old Norman Tebbit. The Thatcher government of the 1980s, Tebbit confesses, could and should have brought down the mines “much more slowly” and done more to bring new jobs to the Northeast.
The composite image that was built, as Payne travels through West and South Yorkshire, the Midlands and the North West, is one of post-industrial disillusionment that translates into a protest vote in the Brexit referendum. When the first tremors of the looming earthquake were felt, Labor did not understand the deadly threat to the base of its red wall posed by the rise of Ukip, and treated it as a far-right threat to the Conservatives. By 2019, Labor’s association with attempts to reverse Brexit through a second “popular vote” had made it toxic in licensing areas. In Grimsby, defeated Labor MP Melanie Onn describes a “soul-destroying” campaign during which longtime supporters refused to open the door for her. Sincere and repentant Peter Mandelson admits to Payne: “We should have accepted May’s deal as the least damaging option.” Then there was the Corbyn factor. The profound unpopularity of the Labor leader on the steps of the red wall doors stemmed from a growing conviction that local values and priorities on issues such as immigration were no longer shared by a party that had become too city-based and culturally alien.
Payne’s thesis is that these unique factors: the wrong Brexit policy, the wrong leader (and the charismatic appeal of Boris Johnson, who Gray believes is forging a new policy that combines one-nation Toryism and old Labor values ) deeper issue that should have Labor deeply concerned. Structural, economic and social changes, he writes, have changed the composition of constituencies such as North East Derbyshire and North West Durham. The old industrial way of life – steel, coal, ships, and so on – instilled a sense of community pride and mutual dependence. The Labor Party was his political expression. But Payne suggests that this collectivist culture has been replaced in many areas by relatively prosperous commuter belts and more individualistic lifestyles and ways of working. Barratt’s “Britain” of gated communities and comfortable landlords has slipped over the red wall and outgrown old loyalties in the post-industrial age. Significant parts of the lost England of Labor are becoming more middle class and thus more well disposed towards the Conservatives. “Many of the places that voted Conservative for the first time,” Payne writes, “are happy, and the dystopian version of society painted by Labor in 2019 was very out of place with the world they know. This suburban lifestyle is where future elections will be fought. “
That can be part of the story. But the alleged “bourgeoisization” of the red wall does not explain why, when Ronnie Campbell and his wife went canvassing at Blyth in 2019, “there were more Labor votes in posh areas than on municipal estates.” The real trauma of December 2019 was that the Labor Party lost its emotional relationship with the underprivileged. And throughout his road trip, Payne finds again and again a desire to restore what Phil Wilson, defeated at Tony Blair’s former headquarters in Sedgefield, describes as “community.” This surely, more than aspirational individualism, fueled the Brexit revolt among the working class; a desire for places to once again take charge of their collective destinies. As Payne points out, Boris Johnson ensured that the Conservative party reaped the electoral rewards of the insurgency.
Wilson makes his observation over lunch with Payne at his local pub. Their conversation is one of countless enlightening discussions in the book, taking place amid various levels of Covid restrictions in art galleries, pubs, cafes, and community centers. Payne’s passion and personal commitment to his topic seems to enchant many of his interviewees to open up in fascinating ways. The Labor crisis on the red wall and the party’s attempts to resolve it will shape the future of English politics. This passionate, warm and insightful work is an indispensable guide to how it came about.
Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Lost Workers’ England by Sebastian Payne is published by Macmillan (£ 20). To support the guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism