If you live in Yorkshire, it’s hard sometimes not to feel as though you are in the eye of the storm. A region that voted to leave the EU, that has suffered (like many) from the financial impacts of the pandemic, and a key battleground in any forthcoming general election.
So what do voters in red wall seats in Yorkshire make of Brexit, and of politics in general some two years on from leaving the EU and the start of the pandemic?
Yorkshire red wall opinions
A fascinating report published by the UK in a Changing Europe last week attempted to lift the lid on what voters are thinking some two years after the last general election. A period like no other, when the two seismic events of fighting an international pandemic and leaving our biggest trading bloc (the EU) collided.
The report draws on findings from IPSOS who were commissioned to carry out qualitative research investigating the changing political landscape. Specifically, individuals were drawn from the following constituencies:
- Batley and Spen
- Don Valley
- Bradford South
- Rother Valley
- Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford
- Colne Valley
- Penistone and Stocksbridge
As well as Great Grimsby and Scunthorpe.
The report makes for fascinating reading, but will be of little comfort to either of the major parties. If anything, it shows how much traditional party loyalties have been broken and the extent to which those votes are now up for grabs.
The sense that the general election of 2019 marked a break with the past was evident – with two respondents quoted as saying:
“For the North to turn completely upside down, that was a complete bombshell.”(Conservative voter)
“A mining community, and it’s always been Labour, Labour, Labour, Labour and now we’ve got a Conservative MP.”(Brexit Party voter)
A Yorkshire identity and levelling up
The summary report from IPSOS contains some of the most revealing aspects of how swing voters are feeling.
“Participants were enthusiastic and positive about the places where they lived and Yorkshire more broadly”, seeing Yorkshire as culturally distinctive from down south with connectivity between places and good community spirit as a positive aspect of living in Yorkshire. Although when it came to identity, participants interchanged the terms British and English.
Levelling up was also a confusing concept.
“It sounds like a game, like a PlayStation game. Like you’ve got to the end of one stage and you go onto the next level. I just think you’d be playing a game on PlayStation or something.”(Labour voter, female)
“You often hear about the North-South divide, etc. From whom? Probably spin doctors in the government. By the government. I think it’s a bit of a sales pitch for the Northern vote, personally. That’s what I see it as.”(Conservative voter, male)
The big concerns appeared to be around crime and drug abuse, homelessness in the cities, and deprivation and empty buildings in the town centres. It is striking how much the heat has gone out of the conversation about Brexit. But Brexit and the pandemic are together seen as responsible for food shortages and problems with petrol shortages.
Party affiliations have broken down
Perhaps the most worrying thing for both Labour and the Tories is the extent to which party affiliations have been broken. The old social contract seems well and truly broken.
True, there is evidence that longer-term Conservative voters are going nowhere with their party affiliation (describing the party as trustworthy or good at managing the economy), but those who switched their vote to the Conservatives in 2019 showed little attachment to the party. Curiously, respondents did mention that Conservatives now appeared to be more the party of the working class (Thatcher would have been proud!)
Equally, this does not translate into former Labour voters returning to the party. “A persistent theme across the focus groups was a belief that Labour’s economic record in office was poor, with the financial crisis of 2008 being a focal point for criticism.”
This seems acutely unfair to Labour given that the global financial crisis 13 years ago wasn’t really Labour’s fault – but then that’s politics.
The bottom line is that in 2021 votes are up for grabs, particularly amongst those who switched Labour to Tory in 2019. There’s no evidence of a permanent shift to the Conservatives from those voters, neither is there evidence that they will automatically return to Labour – a sense, as the report says, of them “shopping around”.
Brexit is no longer seen as the answer
An interesting factor to consider is that people are still unhappy with their circumstances and quality of life, but neither Labour nor Brexit are seen as the answer. As the IPSOS report notes, “Their previous Labour votes had not resulted in their lives or local areas demonstrably improving, thus prompting disillusionment and a change in voting preference”.
But Brexit is also not the answer, as even the staunchest Leave supporters who took part in the focus groups feel that Brexit is having negative consequences for the country’s economy. This means the Tories will have a huge problem in these seats, as they can’t frame the next election around the once-popular notions of sovereignty, independence and Brexit.
It’s all about the economy
And it will be all about the economy in the next few years. A recent New Economics Foundation report shows that real disposable incomes in Yorkshire and the Humber have barely risen since 2019 (0.3 percent), with places like Wakefield, Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Hull getting a special mention for having both low productivity and high social needs.
Last year I looked at the two bellwether seats of Keighley and Dewsbury – Labour seats lost to the Tories in 2019. Their town centres feel hugely neglected and left behind but after nearly 12 years in power, one cannot help but point the finger at the Tories. How are the Conservatives suddenly and miraculously going to make places like these feel prosperous and proud. Or, as the UK in a Changing Europe report notes, “To hold onto voters in these areas the Conservatives need to deliver, but it is not clear that they yet understand what that means”.
Voters are indeed up for grabs. The political party that manages to articulate that sense of concern and have a clear route map to make that happen will be the beneficiaries. The message needs to include a credible economic package and a sense of purpose that generates pride in these communities. Labour could still do this, but they really need to up their game sooner rather than later.