There is a question at the heart of British politics that is still unanswered. Why did the red wall - a swathe of formerly safe Labour seats in the Midlands and northern England - fall so resoundingly to the Tories in the 2019 election? Was it Corbynism? Brexit? New Labour? Globalisation? Austerity? Was it gradual and inevitable, a consequence of deep structural and economic changes, or did it result from the chance collision of various political personalities and the choices they made?
These are the questions that the FT’s Whitehall editor Sebastian Payne takes with him - in a red Mini Cooper – on a reporting road trip to ten of those constituencies. In each, he speaks to - well - almost everyone. There is a collection of impressive interviews with major political figures, including Boris Johnson, Tony Blair, Keir Starmer, Neil Kinnock, Andy Burnham, Sajid Javid, Ed Milliband and Angela Rayner, many of whom open up to Payne with fascinating frankness. (At one point Norman Tebbit admits to him that the Thatcher government “could have run those mines down much more slowly. And we could have done more to help to bring jobs to those areas”). But the real joy of the book is in conversations with local MPs, shop owners, headteachers, business people, church wardens, and the founder of a mosque, the people who witnessed Labour’s crisis in their own back yards.
Payne grew up in Gateshead, which is not a red wall seat but shares many similarities with them, and this is where he starts his journey. His skin in the game makes the journey a personal one, too, and this lends the book a particular warmth (it may also explain some of the candour of his interviewees). His passion for his subject comes through.
What we get is a patchwork quilt of explanation, analysis, and anecdote, which gradually builds to Payne’s thesis: that Labour in these areas was indeed a victim of long-term, structural forces beyond its control – but that in 2019 these were turbocharged by Brexit, along with Jeremy Corbyn’s failings and Boris Johnson’s charisma. Red wall seats, once industrial and collectivist, have in many places become wealthier and individualist, home to prosperous middle-class homeowners. Poorer areas remain, meanwhile, but they have lost their sense of community and their emotional connection with Labour. The task ahead of Starmer – to win them back - is not an enviable one.
“It’s a bit like a wife who’s been telling her husband for years you’re not listening to me,” says Ian Austin, the former Labour MP for Dudley North who stood down before the 2019 election. “… So after years and years of being ignored, being lectured by this husband who’s not remotely interested in what their wife thinks, the wife gradually is worn down. And in 2019 decides to divorce their husband. You can’t just turn up with a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates and say I’m really sorry.”
Labour’s attempts to fight its way back into these seats will define the next few years in politics. Payne’s entertaining and insightful book is essential reading.
Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour's Lost England by Sebastian Payne (Macmillan, £20)