Halfway through this immensely readable compendium of local reportage, interviews and analysis, Neil Kinnock regales Sebastian Payne with a splendid anecdote from the 1974 election campaign. Doing the rounds in his safe south Wales seat, accompanied by a “theorist comrade” named Barry Moore, the future Labour leader came away from the only Tory street in the constituency with a flea in his ear. “I said to Barry and my agent: ‘What a bunch of bastards,’ recalls Kinnock. “And Barry said: ‘Yep, but you better hope those bastards never get organised.’ And I’ve remembered that to this day. The working-class Tories are not an isolated crop who are separated from the rest of the communities in which they live. They have relatives, they have friends, they have workmates, they have drinking buddies. When an area switches, it switches rapidly and suddenly.”
Broken Heartlands is an exploration of how, in the election of December 2019, just such a seismic switch to the Tories took place across huge swathes of the Midlands and northern England. The collapse of the “red wall” of safe Labour seats was a pivotal moment in British political history. It handed an 80-seat majority to Boris Johnson and plunged Labour into an existential crisis from which it has yet to emerge. So how did Labour lose the loyalty of the kind of people it was set up to fight for? Brexit confusion, Jeremy Corbyn, deindustrialisation, New Labour neglect, globalisation, “wokeism”, the excesses of the hard left and the impact of austerity: all have been offered in partial explanation. Between the autumn of 2020 and the spring of 2021, Payne bought a red Mini Cooper and embarked on a road trip to reach his own conclusions, following up on his own reporting over the past few years for the Financial Times. Having grown up in Gateshead in the 90s and 00s, in a mixed political household, he can claim some northern skin in the game.
The result is a nuanced tour-d’horizon of a political landscape shaped by history, emotion, loss and patchy regeneration. Payne visits 10 red wall constituencies in England, nine of which turned blue in 2019. At each stop along the way, he intersperses local foot-slogging and analysis with a rich array of interviews, engaging a huge cast of characters. A chapter on Blyth Valley, his first port of call, features a drive with Dan Jackson, author of The Northumbrians, and a chat with the political philosopher John Gray, who grew up in South Shields. A sit-down with ex-Blyth MP Ronnie Campbell and his wife, Doreen, is followed by a mea culpa on the phone from an 89-year-old Norman Tebbit. The Thatcher government of the 1980s, Tebbit confesses, could and should have run down the mines “much more slowly” and done more to bring new work to the north-east.
The composite picture built up, as Payne travels through West and South Yorkshire, the Midlands and the north-west, is one of postindustrial disillusionment tipping into a protest leave vote in the Brexit referendum. As the first tremors of the coming earthquake were felt, Labour failed to understand the lethal threat to its red wall base represented by the rise of Ukip, treating it instead as a far-right threat to the Tories. By 2019, Labour’s association with attempts to overturn Brexit through a second “people’s vote” had rendered it toxic in leave areas. In Grimsby, the defeated Labour MP, Melanie Onn, describes a “soul-destroying” campaign during which longstanding supporters refused to open the door to her. A candid and regretful Peter Mandelson admits to Payne: “We should have accepted May’s deal as the least harmful option.” Then there was the Corbyn factor. The Labour leader’s deep unpopularity on red wall doorsteps came from a growing conviction that local values and priorities on issues such as immigration were no longer shared by a party that had become too city-based and culturally alien.
Payne’s thesis is that these one-off factors – the wrong Brexit policy, the wrong leader (and the charismatic appeal of Boris Johnson, who Gray believes is forging a new politics combining one-nation Toryism and old Labour values) – map on to a deeper problem that should have Labour deeply worried. Structural, economic and societal changes, he writes, have changed the makeup of constituencies such as North East Derbyshire and North West Durham. The old industrial way of life – steel, coal, ships and the rest – inculcated a sense of communal pride and mutual dependency. The Labour party was its political expression. But Payne suggests that this collectivist culture has been replaced in many areas by relatively prosperous commuter belts and more individualistic lifestyles and forms of work. The “Barratt Britain” of private housing estates and comfortable homeowners has crept up on the red wall, and superseded old loyalties in the postindustrial age. Significant parts of Labour’s lost England are becoming more middle-class and therefore more well-disposed to the Conservatives. “Many of the places that voted Conservative for the first time,” Payne writes, “are content, and the dystopian version of society painted by Labour in 2019 was sharply out of kilter with the world they know. This suburban lifestyle is where future elections will be fought.”
That may be part of the story. But the alleged “bourgeoisification” of the red wall does not explain why, when Ronnie Campbell and his wife went canvassing in Blyth in 2019, “there were more Labour votes in the posh areas than there were in the council estates”. The true trauma of December 2019 was that Labour lost its emotional rapport with the less well-off. And throughout his road trip, Payne encounters again and again the desire for a restoration of what Phil Wilson – defeated in Tony Blair’s former seat of Sedgefield – describes as “communality”. This surely, rather than aspirational individualism, drove the Brexit revolt among the working class; a desire that places should be able to take charge of their collective destinies again. As Payne points out, Boris Johnson made sure that the Conservative party reaped the electoral rewards of the insurgency.
Wilson makes his observation over lunch with Payne in his local pub. Their conversation is one of countless enlightening discussions in the book, which take place amid various levels of Covid restrictions in art galleries, pubs, cafes and community centres. Payne’s passion and personal engagement with his subject seems to charm many of his interviewees into opening up in fascinating ways. Labour’s crisis in the red wall, and the party’s attempts to resolve it, will shape the future of English politics. This engrossing, warm and insightful work is an indispensable guide to how it came about.
Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne is published by Macmillan (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply