Labour is winning back voters in the red wall but has work to do to seal the deal

Keir Starmer at the Labour leadership hustings 2020
Keir Starmer, by Rwendland is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

There is bad news for the Conservatives in the first major poll taken of ‘red wall’ voters since last December’s general election. The poll estimates that in a new election, the Conservatives would lose 36 of the 45 seats polled – a significant number of the seats they took from Labour last year. The headline figures show that while a year ago the Conservatives led in these seats by 48 percent to 39 percent, on today’s figures Labour would take the lead with 47 percent to the Conservatives’ 41 percent – a near reversal of fortunes.

The bad news for the Conservatives continues when we delve into the reasons why. They only retain around 70 percent of their 2019 voter – with 1 in 10 saying they would vote Labour, and 1 in 6 saying that they do not know. These ‘don’t knows’ should be a concern for both parties – with their minds made up they could be enough to swing seats for either party.

After their polling high in the North and Midlands – won with pledges on nurses, police officers and hospitals, and against the record unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn – voters in the red wall are reverting to longstanding fears of the ‘same old Tories’. The Conservatives are seen as more out of touch than Labour and less likely to ‘stand up for people like me’. Labour lead by 10 points as the party that ‘shares your values’.

The two standout reasons given for their views by voters, were the government’s mishandling and lack of clarity over pandemic restrictions, and Dominic Cummings’ famed trip to Barnard Castle. Johnson may come to regret standing by his then adviser instead of sacking him or at the least requiring an apology.

There is concern too about the government’s agenda beyond coronavirus. Some 62 percent of respondents are not confident the government will deliver on levelling up the North and Midlands by 2024, including 43 percent of 2019 Tory voters. Almost half say the government is giving no more attention to these regions than previous ones.

But it’s not all good news for Labour. Red wall voters express doubts about their management of the economy, being too left wing, and their stance on immigration. Labour is still held back by its failure to make the case for immigration. Its benefits to the economy, society and job numbers are evident and yet the party is all but silent – ceding the issue to those who claim it is damaging. Unless this changes, the party will continue to be dragged down.

Labour also faces a challenge when Boris Johnson inevitably leaves office. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is more popular than Johnson in the red wall, but is put in the shade by Chancellor Rishi Sunak. While Starmer has a net positive rating of 7 percent, Sunak is on 33 percent.

As with all polls this is a snapshot, not a prediction. It should be remembered that Ed Miliband’s Labour led the Conservatives in national polls for most of the 2010–2015 parliament, but failed in the only poll that counts – election day.

But the poll is valuable nonetheless. A year on, it shows that concerns are growing over the Conservatives’ actions – whether on the pandemic or levelling up – and that voters are questioning their values. The public may forgive mistakes, particularly if apologised for, but the sense that a party does not share your values – as was the case with Labour last December – runs far deeper.

The next election is far off. Labour has a lot of work to do to win voters’ trust, not least by making a positive case for immigration – which will become more important as the economy struggles under Johnson’s needlessly hard Brexit and suffers worker shortages in key sectors, including social care and agriculture, as a result.

Labour also has to set out a vision. It has spent most of 2020 criticising government incompetence, which the Conservatives have been only too eager to supply in spades. The fact that we will hit 2021 with the worst health outcomes from the pandemic, the worst economic impact and the longest road back to recovery, should be enough to encourage anyone to take a fresh look at the opposition, but Labour needs to shape up if voters are going to like what they find.

Governments can lose elections – but oppositions also need to win them. To have the chance to do well, in 2024 and in next May’s local and devolved elections, Labour needs to not just criticise but also set out its own vision for the country.

There will be less money to spend in the future, due to Brexit and pandemic impacts – what is Labour’s proposal to build social democracy in that world? Brexit deal or not, our relations – in trade, services, police cooperation and health – with our closest neighbours will have been shredded. What is Labour’s vision of our future relationship with the EU, and to what extent will it begin to renew collaboration and engagement?

One poll is encouraging, but Labour must not allow itself to let positive polls lead to complacency, as the Miliband leadership did. Not only is the red wall not yet won, Labour is still without a recovery plan in Scotland, which is just as important to the party’s fortunes. Winning back both sets of voters, and keeping onside Labour’s young, educated city dwellers is the challenge Labour needs to face, and one it has only just begun.

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