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No Turning Back – Breaking The Red Wall in 2019

The 2019 General Election and the UK’s new political geography.
Guy Miscampbell, Will Tanner, James Blagden
December 3, 2020
No Turning Back – Breaking The Red Wall in 2019

A year on from the election, it is fashionable to say Boris Johnson must choose between loyal voters in the South and new voters in the Red Wall. This is a false choice. The truth is that the party’s new coalition is not only more working class and provincial than before, it is more culturally coherent as a result.

Conservatives must be the party of both the Red Wall and Southern heartlands to win in 2024.

Our major study of the new electorate reveals the Conservatives can only be sure of victory in 2024 if they double down on levelling up to retain the Red Wall, but must work to engage younger voters to maintain a majority coalition in the longer term.

1 in 5 Conservative voters, mostly concentrated in the Red Wall, “lent their votes” to the Conservatives, doubling the party’s majority from 42 to 80. Boris Johnson must ensure there is “no turning back” on the voters and places that swept the Conservatives to victory last year if he wants to retain a majority in 2024.

But if the Conservatives fail to consolidate their new coalition of voters, they may be caught between two stalls and forfeit the 80-seat majority they won last year. Only a 4.3% swing to Labour would be needed to generate a hung parliament in 2024.

In the 2019 election, 1 in 5 Conservative voters, equivalent to 3.2 million people, practiced what we call “contract voting” – in that they voted for the party despite it not being their first choice, in order to deliver a specific outcome. Without these contract electors, the Conservative vote share would have been 33%, rather than 45%, and the majority would have halved from 80 to 42. Two thirds of these voters voted explicitly to deliver Brexit or to “to stop a party I dislike from winning”. Only 25% voted because they thought the Conservatives had the right policies, leader, or values. The Government’s majority is therefore much more fragile than it looks.

Labour’s coalition is now ideologically split between moderate and hard left voters and could only ever win 37% of voters or 260 seats in its current form. Keir Starmer must move to the right on both culture and economics to get anywhere near a majority.


It is a myth that Red Wall voters are different from the Tory core vote.

In this report, we use large sample polling conducted throughout November and December 2019 to understand the new electorate. We identify the role of the election campaign, understand the composition and stickiness of the coalitions it left behind, and explore what it means for the main parties and their policies in this Parliament. What becomes visible is a restructuring of the electorate that is currently febrile and temporary but could shortly become resilient and permanent.

We find that it is a mistake to think the Conservatives are ideologically split between “Southern” conservatism on the one hand and “Red Wall” conservatism on the other. The Conservatives no longer represent the kind of metropolitan values characterised by the Notting Hill set, but their new coalition is highly homogeneous in terms of values – leaning marginally to the left on the economy and right on socio-cultural issues.

The Tories’ old heartland and new Red Wall voters are united in wanting politicians to be tough on crime and immigration and to invest in and support communities and local economies. They are far from economically liberal: a majority support tax rises to pay for more NHS and public spending and want a government that regulates more rather than less, focuses more on economic inequality, and pushes businesses to do more to retrain workers. Statistically 62% of Conservative voters are closely aligned with each other on economic values and 51% are aligned on social values.

The Labour Party, by contrast, is heavily split between moderate centre-left voters and a group of voters who are radically left-wing on the economy and liberal on social issues. More than one in four (27%) of Labour voters in 2019 are defined by having strongly left wing views on both social and economic axes. As a result, just 40% Labour voters are closely aligned with each other on social or economic issues, while around 1 in 4 hold radically different values from the average Labour voter. of the electorate.

Nov 16



Workington Man abandoned Labour

In October 2019, we identified “Workington Man” as the key swing voter in 2019 and which predicted the fall of rugby league towns in the “Red Wall”.

Workington Man is a new voter archetype and the key swing voter in Britain today. This voter is likely to be over 45 years old, white, does not have a degree, has has lived in his home for over 10 years and resides in the North or Midlands of England. He voted to Leave the EU in 2016 and thinks the country is moving further away from his views both economically and culturally.

In the 2019 General Election, a striking 66% voted Conservative, up from 42% just four years earlier in the 2015 General Election. But in 2019, only 11% of this group voted Labour.

But this short term route to electoral success – consolidating among more older, Brexit-voting groups, particularly in the Red Wall – is only sustainable in the long term if the party fixes the hole in its coalition among younger voters, which are increasingly less likely than older generations to vote Conservative as they age.


The geography and demography of the main parties has fundamentally changed post-2019

This reflects the changing demographics and geography of both main parties, as Labour has become more of a young, metropolitan and liberal party and the Conservatives have become older, more provincial and more rooted in a set of values favouring economic order and cultural attachment. We find that, following the 2019 General Election:

1. Brexit and other factors have completely changed the fundamentals of the electorate from when David Cameron was first elected in 2010.

In total, over a quarter (26%) of Conservative 2019 voters had not supported the party at a previous election and one in five (20%) Labour voters were new to the party. This realignment has been happening for some time, visible in Ed Balls’ defeat in Morley in 2015 and Ben Bradley’s win in Mansfield two years later, but it accelerated in 2019.

2. The Conservatives hold a greater share of seats in the North and Midlands than at any point since 1935, holding 57% of seats.

They also won two in five of the original Northern Rugby League towns. In contrast, 37 of the 50 safest Labour seats are now within the boundaries of Britain’s four largest cities: London, Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool. Despite suffering their worst defeat for several decades, Labour recorded the equal highest number of seats in London and the South East since the 1997 landslide.

3. Shifting demographics

  • Two in five Conservative voters are working class voters. In 2019, 24% of the party’s coalition were C2 voters and 18% of DE voters. Fewer than half of AB voters (45%) voted Tory whereas more than half of C2 voters (51%) did . Overall, the Conservative Party won over 43% of C1, 51% of C2 and 41% of DE voters, compared to 33%, 32% and 39% for Labour. 1 in 10 (9%) of DE voters swung to the Conservatives during the campaign itself.
  • The Conservatives led Labour by 37 points (59% to 22%) among those with no qualifications but trailed by 5 points among graduates. But this was mainly due to age. More than twice as many under-35 year olds with degrees voted Labour (52%) as voted Conservative (24%). In contrast, the Conservatives won the support of 46% of over-55 year old degree holders while only 27% voted Labour.
  • The tipping point at which voters are more likely to vote Conservative than Labour is now 43, down from 47 at the 2017, but the gap between the oldest and youngest voters widened to more than 80 percentage points. Fewer than 1 in 5 voters aged 65 or over years old would even consider voting Labour at the last election and only 1 in 3 voters aged 18-24 years old would consider voting Conservative.

4. We identify the tribes that underpin the new electorate and explore what this means for Labour and the Conservatives.

  • The Conservatives have created a coalition across four of the most populous voter tribes, which share many values. 40% of “Industrial Working Class” voters voted Conservative, compared to 35% for Labour; 52% of “provincial middle class” voters backed the Conservatives, against 12% for Labour; 65% of “Cultural Conservatives” backed the Conservatives, versus 7% for Labour; and 56% of “Traditional Tories” voted Conservative, against 11% for Labour. Together these groups make up 55% of the electorate.
  • Labour have concentrated their support among groups that are smaller in number and, in values terms, not representative of the rest of the population. 60% of left-wing “New Radicals” voted Labour, making them Labour’s largest group, representing 27% of voters. 44% of “Metropolitan Liberals” voted labour, compared to 16% for the Conservatives. 30% of “Progressive Professionals” voted Labour, marginally ahead of 28% for the Tories. Together these groups only make up 37%.

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