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  • Regional inequalities and the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’
  • Danny MacKinnon (bio)

The abandonment of Labour should be understood in the broader context of regional inequality and regional policy

The capture of Labour’s so-called ‘red wall’ of seats by the Conservatives in the general election of 2019 has attracted much media and public interest, reflecting its significance in shaping the election outcome. The term was coined by a former Conservative strategist, James Kanagasooriam, when he referred to a ‘huge “red wall” stretching from North Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster’ which continued to return Labour MPs despite demographic and cultural characteristics increasingly similar to Conservative seats in the South. 1 Based on their support for ‘leave’ in the 2016 Brexit referendum and their growing support for the Conservatives in recent elections, these areas were successfully targeted by the Conservative campaign. In this article, the ‘red wall’ is defined as the 41 seats won by the Conservatives in Northern England, the Midlands and Wales (including six won in 2017) that had been historically held by Labour over several decades, excluding marginal seats. 2

The collapse of Labour’s ‘red wall’ symbolises a dramatic reversal of the traditional electoral geography of the United Kingdom, with Labour losing support in many working-class areas where the Conservatives have gained, attracting the votes of older, less educated, working-class and white people. 3 While closely linked [End Page 12] to the Brexit vote and these voters’ hostility to Jeremy Corbyn, this is a longer-term trend evident since 2005. Labour’s support is increasingly concentrated in the larger cities, which cannot provide enough seats for a parliamentary majority, making towns in particular a critical battleground for future elections.

The ‘red wall’ is comprised of post-industrial towns and rural areas surrounding the big Labour-supporting cities of the North and Midlands. Many of these areas are characterised by relative economic decline rooted in their long-standing experience of deindustrialisation. Ensuing patterns of economic insecurity and precarious work have been reinforced by over a decade of depressed living standards and austerity. 4 At the same time, regional policy has become increasingly city-centric, focusing on the redevelopment of the major cities of the UK. 5 Consequently, many residents of post-industrial towns and outlying areas in the North and Midlands of England feel marginalised and ‘left behind’ by economic change, social liberalism and the relative prosperity of other areas. 6 Their disaffection is part of the broader pattern of political discontent and populism across Europe and the United States, characterised as the ‘revolt of the rust belt’. 7

This article seeks to explain the Conservatives’ capture of ‘red wall’ seats, looking beyond electoral trends and cultural characteristics to place it in the broader context of patterns of regional inequality and regional policy in the UK. Drawing on two recently published books, it outlines the political attitudes and values of ‘red wall’ voters in order to assess these areas’ future political prospects, particularly in terms of the Conservatives’ ability to deliver their ‘levelling up’ agenda and Labour’s future strategy. 8

Regional inequalities and regional policy

The UK has one of the highest levels of regional inequality of any major European economy, reflecting increasing regional divergence over recent decades. 9 Globalisation has accentuated these entrenched regional economic inequalities to create three increasingly separate economies: the dynamic economies of London and the South; the weakly performing regions of the North and Midlands of England, Wales and Northern Ireland; and Scotland, which is more prosperous than the second group. 10 Widening regional inequalities from the 1980s have coincided with the abandonment of redistributionist regional policies in favour [End Page 13] of neoliberal strategies designed to support the growth of the most economically competitive regions, leading to a concentration of infrastructure investment in London in recent years. 11

Between 1977 and 1995, the UK experienced a clear pattern of economic divergence on both the north-south and urban-rural dimensions. 12 The South East of England and affluent parts of Scotland grew, while the North and Midlands of England and Wales lost ground. Rural areas and shires enjoyed growing prosperity...

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