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Last week, I posted a series on the effect of London’s metropolitan elite on England’s voters in 2015 and 2019.

Those who missed it can read Parts 1, 2 and 3.

On December 12, 2019, a surprising number of staunch Labour voters in the North and the Midlands lent their votes to the Conservatives for the first time.

Those constituencies in England that switched from Labour to Conservative either for the first time or for the first time in decades are known as the Red Wall.

The Conservative MPs who represent them are local people familiar with the issues that concern their constituents.

These MPs are a far cry from the Sir Bufton Tuftons from days of yore.

When the new intake took their seats in the House of Commons, spirits were high on Conservative benches as the UK exited the European Union.

In debates in January 2020, we heard them discuss the hopes they had for Boris Johnson’s levelling up plan concerning rail, roads and industry.

What follows is what is on the minds of Red Wall voters and their MPs.

Tax

Five days before Chancellor Rishi Sunak presented his dynamic budget to the House on Wednesday, January 16, 2020, a pollster surveyed Red Wall voters for their views on taxation.

Guido Fawkes has a graph and summary of the poll results: 36% wanted cuts to council tax; 29% wanted cuts to income tax and 22% wanted cuts on fuel duty.

However, Guido found that the voters surveyed contradicted themselves (red emphases in the original):

According to Opinium Research for Lansons, 42% of the famed ‘Red Wall’ new Tory voters state the priority measure they would like to see for this afternoon is a rise in their take-home pay being introduced in the Budget – an income tax cut in other words. That is because 41% of the new Tory voters think taxes are too high and errr, 40% of the same new Tory voters think government spending is too low. Workington, we have a problem….

If the coronavirus is an economic hit on the scale of the credit crisis, a temporary halving of VAT to 10% would incentivise spending, immediately and effectively….

Sadly, because of coronavirus, most of Rishi’s budget had to be binned.

Levelling up

In September 2020, Conservative MPs created a taskforce to level up, i.e. reduce regional inequalities between the North as well as the Midlands versus the South.

The BBC reported that these poorer constituencies now have Conservative MPs:

A report produced for the taskforce says Conservatives now hold more seats in the lowest paid areas than Labour

In the 2019 election the Conservatives won a number of seats across the Midlands and the north of England previously considered to be Labour strongholds, also known as ‘the red wall’

Now this new group, the “levelling up taskforce” – which includes many of the new “red wall” MPs – is urging the government to set itself three key tests as part of its drive to reduce geographical inequality.

It says those areas that have seen the lowest growth in earnings, should see earnings rise faster than they have in recent years; areas with the worst unemployment rate should converge with the national average; and areas with the lowest employment rate should also catch up with the national average.

It also calls on the government to set out geographical analysis of how tax and spending changes impact different areas

Analysis produced by the Onward think tank for the new group found that of the bottom quarter of seats in Britain with the lowest earnings, more are now held by the Conservatives (77) than Labour (74).

The following month, Northern Red Wall MPs formed a new group to ensure that Boris Johnson keeps his campaign promises:

The BBC reported:

… the 35-strong Tory group say they want to ensure the government delivers.

It includes several MPs who won seats in traditional Labour heartlands – the so-called “Red Wall” – at last year’s general election.

Paul Howell, who won Tony Blair’s old seat, in Sedgefield, Simon Fell, the MP for Barrow-in-Furness and Sara Britcliffe, who at 24 became the youngest Conservative MP when she won Hyndburn, in Lancashire, are among those who have signed up to the group provisionally named the Northern Research Group.

Ms Britcliffe said: “I don’t need to join a group to speak up for Hyndburn but I have also the responsibility of making sure that we do deliver on our promise.”

The group’s leader Jake Berry, who has been the Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen since 2010, said it was not “about giving government a bad time”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster: “There are arguments that we collectively as northern MPs make together, to create a compelling case for the government to invest in the north”.

These include “making sure that this government delivers on its promise to ‘level up’ the north, deliver that Northern Powerhouse and create wealth across the north of England,” he added.

“We don’t form a government unless we win the north.”

Mr Berry is the former minister for Northern Powerhouse, which was set up by former Chancellor George Osborne to redress the North-South economic imbalance, and to attract investment into northern cities and towns.

The problem with levelling up is that some of the local councils most in need of funds are Labour-run. As I have been writing this post on Friday afternoon, February 25, 2022, I have heard Philip Davies, who represents Shipley, tell his fellow MPs that Bradford Council has not even put together a bid in order to get levelling up funds from the Government. Other Red Wall MPs had similar complaints.

This took place during a Private Members’ Bill debate on the Local Authority Boundaries Bill, urging reviews of local council boundaries and making such changes easier. Kemi Badenoch, the minister representing the Government, said that the bill would need significant rewording in order to be considered. She will work with Robbie Moore, also a Red Wall MP, to revise his proposed legislation.

Bradford Council is not the only Labour council that has been under the spotlight.

In October 2020, another Red Wall MP, Chris Clarkson, made known his concerns about Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester.

That brought about a furious backlash from Angela Rayner on the Labour benches. She allegedly called him ‘scum’ …

… and was given a dressing down by Deputy Speaker Dame Eleanor Laing.

Paying for coronavirus

In March 2021, a pollster asked Red Wall voters how they wanted the Government to handle the cost of coronavirus.

Most Red Wall voters opposed higher taxes, preferring lower spending instead:

Guido’s accompanying post says:

Research from Public First’s Rachel Wolf has revealed that when asked to choose between higher taxes, borrowing, or spending cuts, a plurality of the public back spending cuts over the other options. Tax rises are most popular with high social status white collar ‘AB’ voters, and least popular with working class ‘DE’ voters, who overwhelmingly back spending cuts. Working class constituents in the red wall aren’t typical Islington socialists…

Also:

The other finding is that people are less opposed to taxes they think they don’t have to pay, and more opposed to taxes they think they do have to pay. In reality this translates to taxes they have to pay directly. Any tax that is indirect on business still has an economic cost that is borne in the end by individuals, for example dividend taxes reduce your pension income, business rates and carbon taxes increase consumer prices. The more taxes are understood, the less popular they become.

True. We have tax rises coming, so there will be dissatisfaction in these constituencies.

Net Zero

Another plan that will not go down well is the drive to reach Net Zero. The cost is upwards of £1.5 trillion:

This tweet from 2021 encapsulates the thinking of Red Wall MPs (ignore Michael Fabricant, who was commenting on the wrong thread). Click on the image to see all the comments, especially from Jackie Doyle-Price, who mentions the metropolitan elite:

Minimum wage

In November 2021, Rishi Sunak presented a more sombre budget as the nation was still grappling with coronavirus.

One of the more positive points was his commitment to raising the national minimum wage.

On the face of it, it would seem to appeal to Red Wall voters. However, The Spectator‘s Patrick O’Flynn was less sure, asking if Sunak understood them properly. Raising the minimum wage does not lift those in more responsible positions. In fact, the latter have been earning less over recent years (emphases in purple mine):

In his recent Budget, the Chancellor committed the government to several eye-catching policies, including a big uplift in the minimum wage, these days rebranded as the ‘national living wage’. But something that went unremarked upon was reaffirmation of a target of raising the minimum wage as a share of average pay.

A 6.6 per cent uplift this year would, said Sunak, keep the government ‘on track for our target of two-thirds of median earnings by 2024.’ Many Tory MPs beamed with happiness, no doubt thinking this would further bolster the working-class parts of their new electoral coalition. But will it?

According to the OECD, the UK minimum wage was worth 34 per cent of mean earnings and 41 per cent of median earnings in the year 2000. It has since risen steadily as a share of these averages, hitting 48 per cent of mean earnings and 58 per cent of median earnings in 2020.

Think about how this must feel to workers on roughly median earnings. Two decades ago they earned two-and-a-half times as much as minimum wage workers. Now they earn less than twice as much. By 2024, Sunak has decreed that minimum wage workers in entry level roles will be earning two-thirds of the amount that median earners do. This will represent a massive compression of wages within a single generation.

For those working people who put in a lot of effort in their schooldays compared to their more idle classmates, or who perhaps underwent apprenticeships on very low earnings at the start of their careers, this is highly unlikely to feel like progress.

When you consider the extra responsibilities higher-earning working class jobs typically entail compared to minimum wage roles – and the fact that various welfare entitlements may further reduce the net advantage – this government policy is coming close to rendering the entire hardworking ethos pointless.

This issue of earnings relativities between different grades of workers has long been a highly sensitive one in industrial relations, often more so than the level of raw pay per se. Indeed, it was the cause of countless strikes in the 1970s.

Instead of anticipating a celebratory mood among new working-class Tory voters, ministers should be on the lookout for restlessness and resentment. Indeed, the former Downing Street pollster James Johnson has already spotted the first stirrings of this in focus groups with participants grumbling that too much help is being directed to those at the very bottom.

Sunak has no parallel policy of ensuring that median earnings catch up as a proportion of the top 10 or 1 per cent of earners. In other words, his approach defies logic. Those in the modest middle of the pay scale have every reason to feel victimised

One can’t help feeling that Margaret Thatcher and her advisers had an altogether better innate understanding of what makes the ambitious working classes and lower middle classes tick than Boris Johnson’s administration. Which is why her flagship policy of bringing in the right-to-buy their council houses at a discount scored an electoral bullseye with aspirational voters

If Tory MPs in red wall seats think this policy is going to delight many of their constituents then I predict that they are about to be disabused of that notion.

It is still too early to tell what most Red Wall voters think of a rise in the minimum wage, but Patrick O’Flynn’s arguments make sense.

Guido Fawkes agrees with O’Flynn and thinks that Red Wall voters would benefit from a reduction in basic income tax rates. Guido took issue with an article in Politico. ‘UC’ stands for Universal Credit:

Sleaze

In November 2021, the then-MP for North Shropshire, Owen Paterson, faced accusations of sleaze via his lobbying. He was forced to resign the seat he had long held. A Liberal Democrat won the by-election.

Some Conservative MPs tried to save Paterson from a 30-day suspension. However, Red Wall MPs were not among them. They objected to having a whipped vote to give Paterson a reprieve. Some voted against the Government, and rightly so.

The rest of the nation also disapproved. This was the beginning of low polling results for Conservatives. It wasn’t long afterwards that Labour began leading in the weekly polls. They still do.

Not only did Red Wall MPs disapprove, so did their voters, as the Daily Mail explained:

Boris Johnson is struggling to contain mounting fury on Tory benches today as a poll laid bare the damage inflicted by his bungled effort to save ally Owen Paterson from punishment for lobbying.

Research by YouGov carried out in the wake of the dramatic Commons vote to suspend the standards system showed the Tory poll lead plunging by five points.

The party is now just one point ahead of Labour, after dropping from 39 per cent to 36 per cent in a week, while Keir Starmer has seen a boost to 35 per cent, according to the survey in The Times.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi tried to cool the growing backlash among MPs this morning, admitting that the government ‘made a mistake’ in retrospectively tying Mr Paterson’s case to wider reforms.

Meanwhile, a blame game is in full swing over who was responsible for the meltdown – which culminated last night when Mr Paterson resigned from the Commons after the PM cut him loose. His exit was made official this morning when he was appointed Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead – the traditional way for MPs to quit the House.

As well as a wave of anger about Mr Johnson’s lack of judgment, many Tories have been pointing the finger at chief whip Mark Spencer, saying he should have realised that the tactic would not ‘fly’. One MP told MailOnline that Mr Spencer had not done his job properly. 

‘If the PM was told about the extent of disatisfaction then he wouldn’t have pushed it,’ they said. ‘You could tell there was a problem because the whips were literally running around the Commons.’

Mr Johnson’s media advisers are thought to have warned that the tactics were high-risk, but those pushing the political benefits of shoring up Mr Paterson and reforming the standards regime won the internal argument.  

The premier is said to be ‘p****d off’ that the crisis has distracted from the progress being made on climate change at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow. Senior MPs said he was also ‘livid’ about triumphalist interviews by Mr Paterson in which he claimed he would not change anything about his past behaviour

One Conservative MP who spoke to The Mail said:

‘I had two marginal male MPs from Red Wall seats in tears looking at their social media feed, looking at their emails coming in after the vote, going ‘what the hell have we done?’.’

… ‘The chat on the WhatsApp groups is that the whips can stick their whipping up their a***. It’s now every man for himself,’ they said.

Chief Whip Mark Spencer recently became the new Leader of the House as Jacob Rees-Mogg moved to a new Cabinet position for Brexit opportunities.

Latest news

Many Red Wall MPs were incensed to learn of the Downing Street parties during lockdown.

Some began joining forces on January 18, 2021, when Boris apologised to Parliament:

As someone tweeted, this could have been about damage limitation for themselves:

Boris met with his own MPs that evening:

Lee Anderson is a former Labour councillor. He often confronts Labour benches with their own dismal record in local and national government.

The Red Wall MPs’ plot to write letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady became known as the Pork Pie Plot, because their alleged leader, Alicia Kearns, represents Rutland and Melton. Melton Mowbray is home to England’s famous pork pies.

Steven Swinford, The Times‘s political editor, spoke with a member of Cabinet who found the rebellion a disgrace:

The Red Wall plot to remove Boris Johnson – with Tory MPs meeting to discuss submitting letters – is not going down well in Cabinet

‘It’s pretty sickening. They were only elected because of him. Most of them are a load of —-ing nobodies. It’s nuts’

Hmm:

With the current situation in Ukraine, the Pork Pie Plot seems like a long time ago. Then again, a week is a long time in politics.

The next thing Red Wall residents can look forward to is a Northern branch of Conservative Party Headquarters in Leeds, which is not part of the Red Wall, but it’s close enough. Pictured is Party chairman Oliver Dowden MP:

Guido Fawkes wrote that this had been a promise from Government since 2020:

The Tories look set to imminently boost their red wall presence – and given recent polling, not a moment too soon. A party source tells Guido that their long-awaited Leeds campaign headquarters – first announced by Amanda Milling way back in September 2020 – is set to open in mere weeks …

… staff are already at work following a prolonged recruitment drive and the project will get up to full steam when work-from-home guidance is lifted. Another source suggested given recent events the party will be keen for the moment to be noticed by the media. Guido looks forward to Dowden’s forthcoming ribbon-cutting…

I will have more on the Red Wall coming soon: profiles of those MPs with the most spark.

Andrew Neil, veteran BBC journalist and chairman of The Spectator worldwide, hosted Episode 7 of The Week in 60 Minutes on Thursday, October 15, 2020:

A summary follows.

Not surprisingly, given events of the past week, coronavirus led the news.

Andrew Neil began with England’s increasing number of regional lockdowns. It would seem that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is no longer following the science. The Labour and official Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, wants another national lockdown. The political editor of The Spectator, James Forsyth, said that, whatever coronavirus crisis measures Boris Johnson takes, he’s ‘damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t’ and has to deal with the damage of lockdowns.

Across the Channel in France, Emmanuel Macron has been following a similar strategy to that of Downing Street and is very concerned about COVID-19 in all respects. Neil asked about last week’s contretemps in Ireland. Forsyth said that Ireland’s dispute between their government and medical experts was played out in public; by contrast, in the UK, it was in private. In any event, he said that scientists are now in a position of ‘negotiation’.

The magazine’s deputy political editor, Katy Balls, was on next to discuss Labour’s position on coronavirus. Labour MPs disagreed with Keir Starmer behind the scenes, a move which she said has united the Conservatives. That said, it seems England could well be heading towards a short ‘circuit breaker’, although that would be very difficult for Conservative MPs to stomach.

Forsyth said that this is a very dangerous time for the Government. Starmer could even emerge victorious. (‘At some point’, I might add, as Boris has a majority of 79 [from 80], and no general election is due before 2024.) At this stage, it’s too soon to tell. He said that no one knows if a circuit breaker would actually work in England.

The Spectator‘s editor Fraser Nelson was up next. He said that Boris was pretty well on to the way to a national lockdown, adding that he lacks the way to fight off SAGE, having been  ‘outmanoeuvered’.

Neil asked about a recent poll showing approval for more coronavirus restrictions. Ben Page from IPSOS-Mori explained the polls, which showed that 62% of respondents thought that stricter measures should be taken. Page indicated that these were somewhat alarming results: ‘quite astonishing in some ways … across the piece’.

Forsyth noted that 19% of Conservative voters in England oppose increased restrictions, which poses a problem for Boris because it creates a North-South divide. Ben Page countered that the polling support for Labour and Conservative has been fairly stable this year. Labour haven’t been able to gain much ground since December 2019.

Jake Berry MP, a Conservative representing the northern constituency of Rossendale and Darwen in Lancashire, spoke next. He said that, although their regional lockdown had been relaxed recently, they are now on Tier 2. He said that people are largely ignoring the Government guidelines and will comply only with what they think is appropriate. He does not favour a national lockdown but supports a local circuit breaker ‘based on the data’, so that it becomes less political for the public. He believes that the Government could have ‘handled the North better’ and that recent weeks have proven a ‘very dangerous moment for Parliament and the North’. That said, he added that Labour ‘is in quite a lot of trouble over this as well’ and said Starmer committed quite a big mistake this week when calling for a national circuit breaker.

Berry further advised that we need to give this new two-week regional lockdown the benefit of the doubt which might lead for in-and-out local lockdowns.

Neil then changed tack, moving across the Channel to France, with its local 10 p.m. coronavirus curfews (some of which are now at 9 p.m.) and a campaign against extremism.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, speaking to the latter point, was the next guest. She was sceptical about any success against extremism. She said that extremists have convinced French immigrants they are living within another type of state to which they do not feel they naturally belong. She added that this is enough to subvert the French nation. She also said that the same narrative is going on in other Western nations, because leaders remain silent and refuse to admit what is really going on.

Talk then turned to Brexit arrangements, which were to have been concluded that day. James Forsyth said that the EU threw the ball into the UK’s ‘court’. That leaves the situation whereby Michel Barnier wants to carry on talks but neither side wants to back down.

Forsyth expects there will be a deal to be done ‘but with a twist in the tail’. Fraser Nelson said that Boris and Macron communicate with each other quite closely and expected that Britain will budge over fishing rights. It will be, he predicted, one for revision: ‘a process rather than an event’.

Forsyth said there could be a November deadline, even though neither side wants an early deadline because they do not want any changes to the deal. He predicted a last minute November 15 deal.

The last part of the programme concerned protecting the triple lock pension with Katy Balls affirming that Boris is ‘committed to it’.

The panel noted Boris’s ‘unstrustworthiness’ problem with voters. Questions from listeners followed for the last ten minutes. Ben Page said that the Labour Party is very unpopular even if Keir Starmer is popular in the polls.

Viewers are grateful to Charles Stanley Wealth Managers for sponsoring the programme.

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