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What lies beyond Labour’s red wall?

PAUL LEFLEY probes a new book by Keir Starmer’s recently appointed director of strategy for an insight into the thinking of post-Corbyn Labour

DEBORAH MATTINSON’s book Beyond the Red Wall studies three areas lost to the Tories in 2019 — Darlington, Hyndburn and Stoke-on-Trent.  

That the author is Keir Starmer’s recently appointed director of strategy and that her book covers matters vital to the Labour Party and the left makes this an important read. Beyond the Red Wall has two key strands.

One is the privations of these areas compared with the rest of the country and the dire need for “levelling up.”

Hailing from Darlington herself, Mattinson quotes studies showing “that those areas have been affected by cuts twice as much as the more affluent south, with deeper cuts across the board.”  

The sheer volume of data in the book confirms the list is long and stark. Many elements are shared with the rest of the country, albeit not to the same degree, others are regionally specific, and solutions need to reflect that.  

The other strand is the decades-long and finally catastrophic decline in support for the Labour Party that lead to a situation where, “of the 60 seats that Labour lost, more than two-thirds were in the red wall.”  

It is emphatic that it is Labour’s disregard for the population there that is the cause.  

In this respect it’s clear to be seen from Mattinson’s research that Labour’s change of Brexit policy in 2019 was for them the consummation of that disregard.

The method of choice for this former Blair adviser is focus groups. The problems with focus grouping are well known.  

It uses statistically small samples, which may not be representative of the wider population, and more active participants and/or the moderator can heavily skew the results.  

Famously, Pepsi learned these lessons the hard way when positive focus group responses to its clear Crystal Pepsi failed to predict the sales bomb it ended up being.  

Focus groups also failed to accurately gauge Donald Trump’s popularity last November.

Yet Mattinson is both skilled and experienced. Britain Thinks, the consultancy she co-founded, has been in business for over a decade and long before that she was in the field.  

She takes serious steps to prevent her sampling being unrepresentative, ensuring that the “social grades,” age range and race of her participants are typical.  

She corroborates her findings using polls, a variety of bodies like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and psephologists. 

She also uses “citizens’ juries” and “Covid diaries,” although these are taken from very small samples, 18 people and 50, respectively. 

In the course of this she doesn’t hide her regard for Tony Blair or her disdain for Jeremy Corbyn.  

Nor does she prettify her disapproval of a mass membership and its role in policy formation. She is clear also that the policies of the left cannot attract the electorate.  

Mattinson doesn’t disguise her high hopes for Keir Starmer either, casting around, as she does, for the scant and diminishing evidence for this.  

She goes as far as to quote one of her subjects as comparing him to Clark Kent!  

The need for levelling up that Mattinson exposes may be indisputable, but her treatment of some of the major issues specifically relating to Labour is not. 

The disconnect communities experience with their council is huge for Labour.  

Former Darlington MP Jenny Chapman told locals protesting over a library closure that “as MP her scope for challenging the council’s decision was limited.”

Labour’s constituent parts have to fit together better than that. Arguably the book infers this.  

Yet Mattinson, her mindset focused on Parliament and general elections, misses a major factor in this.  

She doesn’t seem to have spotted that many CLPs have long complained that when they represent their communities to a Labour council, the response is often poor.  

Red wallers denounce the class composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party. And on this it is manifest the party has a real problem.  

Between 1945 and 2017 its proportion of working class MPs declined from 42 per cent to 1.5 per cent.  

Uncompromisingly stated, red wall voters want their MPs to be working class. Aware of this though she must be, Mattinson is a leading player in a team that shows no intention of changing the composition of the PLP.  

Red wallers also denounce the southern geography of Labour. Other than acknowledging this, Mattinson has little to say.  

Given her support for a north Londoner barrister as leader, more than that may be beyond her.

When the book deals with unpalatable and vexing aspects of the communities studied, it is at its weakest. Issues that should be confronted are accommodated.

So, for instance, to the sentiment, encountered in red wall areas, that welfare recipients are “scroungers” the solution proffered is a contribution-based welfare system.  

The treatment is much the same with the anti-immigrant racism uncovered.  

Leaving aside questions about the extent and character of this racism, her response is accommodation. A points-based immigration system is favoured.  

Opposing this, among others, the TUC says it will make it easier for bad bosses to undercut and exploit everyone who works.” 

It carries on: “Instead of hostility, discrimination and worker insecurity, we need to make sure that everyone at work has the same pay and rights.”

On these two policies she is at one with Labour’s new director of policy, Claire Ainsley.  

The shortcomings of Beyond the Red Wall lie neither in the methodology, nor in much of the empirical data which is there to be heeded. It lies in the predisposition of the author.   

In terms of the deployment of her method, for all her skill and experience, Mattinson is deeply tendentious. She selects her polls carefully.

She claims, for instance, support for nationalisation in 2017 was only 46 per cent. 

Yet in this period YouGov found support for renationalisation ranged between 65 per cent and 53 per cent.  

In 2019, it also found support for public ownership increased under Corbyn’s leadership.  

Only Mattinson can say if she was blind to these finding or chose to ignore them.

The psephologist she favours, Paula Surridge, is even more rabidly anti-Corbyn than her.                                                                                                           

Her comments on Corbyn are not balanced and she attributes his 2017 showing to Theresa May’s incompetence and voters giving him “the benefit of the doubt” — whatever that is.  

On the beating Labour took in 2019, she comments: “It seemed the media’s argument had gradually filtered through.”  

She says this at the same time quoting, without irony, Mail and Sun headlines that Corbyn was a jihadi and terrorist.

Filtering through? The nation was submerged, reason was drowned in a daily tsunami vilifying the man and the policies associated with him.      

When Mattisson disparages left-leaning policies, it is the inadequacies of her own leanings that show up most.  

Even before the pandemic the Tories announced increases in public spending of £18 billion.  

Since then, they have proposed, among other things, a corporation tax rate well in excess of Labour’s proposal.  

It seems to have passed her by that policies to the left of current Labour’s haven’t done Johnson any harm at all.      

As with racism and anti-welfare sentiment, rather than a vision of struggling against division, Mattinson’s approach to levelling up would compound it, putting brakes on any potential advances.

London has deeply poverty-stricken areas, yet of the 73 local authority areas qualifying for the government’s community renewal fund, none are in the capital.                                                                     

Andy Burnham recently warned against “pitching towns against cities and the rest of the country against London.”  

“The country,” he went on, “needs levelling up to be a unifying agenda.” And the material basis for that exists. 

Mattinson seems incapable of seeing the scope for unified action.  

Take universal credit. She clearly shows the disparity of payments between north and south, but again somehow misses the point.  

A call for levelling up on its own doesn’t cut it. An absolutely equitable levelling up still leaves universal credit completely inadequate, north and south, town and city.  

There is no need to pit recipients against each other. Quite the opposite.

The need for levelling up is not contested. If Labour intends only a selective self-interested version, as the Tories do, they’ll shift few in their favour.  

Labour has to declare that more than levelling up is required and possible. 

Red wallers, after all, have expressed hopes of something far better emerging from the pandemic.

Mattinson has no concept of engagement, let alone mobilisation. She is fixated on branding a package far too modest to attract anywhere near the number of voters required to overturn a majority of 160-plus seats.

A Labour Party ensconced in town and city halls and the Palace of Westminster and that ignores fundamental demands made specifically of itself is hardly going to win back a population she insists won’t accept a fudge.                               

It is indefensible that she rejects transformative policies whose popularity has been revealed for decades by methodologies she champions.  

So much that follows from the data in Beyond the Red Wall should be heeded.  

Its loudest call, that its population be listened to, perhaps above all. 

But let it be the 4.7 million people who live there who are listened to and not those with a quite separate agenda who purport to speak on their behalf.

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