The ‘Red Wall’
Something of a myth has arisen about the 2019 General Election, that Labour lost because Jeremy Corbyn was unpopular, and the so-called ‘red wall’ seats turned suddenly away from Labour as a result.
In order to examine this, and why I regard it as a myth, it is necessary to look at the results in a collection of such seats, over a number of elections. This is not a scientific sample. But all the seats I have chosen are ones which used to have sizeable Labour majorities, and remained in Labour hands right through the period (apart from NE Derbyshire which changed hands in 2017). Not all of them were lost in 2019. The sample includes seats from NE England, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Derbyshire (using old-style geographical designations). I am not going to consider the reasons behind any trends, which would involve speculation, but confine myself to the facts.
The first set of data shows the number of Labour votes cast in each seat. It is immediately apparent that in most cases the Labour vote held up well from 1974 up to 1997, irrespective of the overall outcome of the election. After 1997, the Labour vote declined in all of them – in some cases (e.g., Hartlepool, Bishop Auckland), a marked and steady decline; in other cases, rather more bumpy. In 2017, the decline was either arrested or reversed. There was clearly a marked drop in the Labour vote between 2017 and 2019, which gives the anti-Labour swing that the analysts focus on, but in many cases the 2019 result was comparable, or at least not markedly worse than the 2010 or 2015 results, and is generally consistent with the post-1997 trend.
Much the same story, although rather less marked, is apparent from considering Labour’s share of the vote in these seats, with a decline starting in 1997 and continuing through to 2019, with an upwards blip in 2017. Again, this does not support the concept that these seats suddenly turned away from Labour in 2019, but that this was, at least in part, a continuation of a longer term process.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that the 2019 result was a bad one for Labour. But how bad was it really? If we look at the number of Labour votes cast, we see the rather surprising result that there were more Labour votes in 2019, in England, than in 6 of the previous years examined. This includes 2001 and 2005 – in both of which Labour was the overall winner. If we take into account the size of the electorate and the turnout, by looking at Labour’s share of the vote, it was still higher than 1983, 1987, 2010, and 2015 (and the same as 1992) – and not far short of 2005. .But the distribution of those votes was somewhat less favourable in 2019 – so the number of Labour seats in England was rather less than in 2010 or 2015 – but still higher than 1983 or 1987. What made the 2019 result so much worse overall than in the years up to 2010 was the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland, and, to a lesser extent, in Wales. In 2010, Labour won 41 seats in Scotland; in 2015, it was down to 1. After a small resurgence in 2017 (7 seats) it was back down to 1 again in 2019. In Wales, it reduced from 34 seats in 2001 to 25 in 205 and 22 in 2019.
The end result was that the number of Labour seats over the whole UK was the lowest for many years (although not far short of that in 1983) – but it is more complicated than just saying the ‘red wall’ turned against Jeremy Corbyn.