‘Beyond The Red Wall: Why Labour lost, how the Conservatives won and what will happen next’ by Deborah Mattinson – A Review

Political pollsters do not command a high degree of public respect and are frequently derided – even by those politicians who spend vast sums commissioning them and then devouring, behind closed doors, their every conclusion! Deborah Mattinson is considered one of the best, having been Gordon Brown’s chief pollster and then the creator of BritainThinks, a leading British agency with an international reputation.

In this book, published in 2020, she conducts a detailed study of three UK constituencies – Stoke, Darlington and Hyndburn in Lancashire. All three elected a conservative MP for the first time in the 2019 general election after having been solid Labour ‘safe seats’ for ever. Her method basically incorporates the use of rigorously constructed surveys of local and national opinion combined with in-depth individual interviews with voters in those constituencies.

In some ways, few of her findings will come as great surprises to readers who have attempted to keep up with informed news and current affairs reporting over recent years – assuming they have found and recognised it as such among all the propaganda and nonsense that fills our papers and screens.  But where this book excels, at least for me, is in the thoroughness of its research methodology which enables it to support certain conclusions and debunk others with a degree of confidence. After so many random TV ‘vox pop’ clips in shopping plazas, I was more than ready to read the results of research that paid due attention to such issues as sampling, question-framing and interview and interviewer demand characteristics. In other words, to conclusions derived from methodological rigour that merited serious consideration.

In this way, by sorting the wheat from the chaff in terms of the ‘received wisdom’ on what happened in the 2019 election, Mattinson is able to draw firmer conclusions than many which she summarises thus “…in decades of listening to voters … I have never before encountered such a powerful collective sense of grievance”.

Her interviews flesh out this feeling, embedding these beliefs in the emotional and practical details of her many respondents’ lives. Grievance, resentment and anger about – the disappearance of their industrial inheritance; the failure to replace this with anything that matched up to the previous ‘glory days’; the sense of physical decay of neighbourhoods, especially the decline of local high streets; the strong sense that the south of England had profited at the expense of the north, and that their own town in particular, whichever it was, had lost out, even in comparison to more thriving cities nearby.

The Brexit referendum was seen as their opportunity to register these feelings. The more that affluent Remainers in the south – especially Londoners – argued their case, the more many in these constituencies became confirmed in their commitment to ‘Leaving’. “Fury at this being stalled was, for some, the first moment when they looked seriously at leaving Labour, but Brexit was a symptom not a cause of this disaffection. It had followed decades of the Red Wallers believing they had been cheated out of what was due to them”.       

In 2019 I did a little bit of canvassing in local Red Wall seats. (I am pretty hopeless at it.) Instead of trying to talk round doubters or downright opposers (I did try to a bit, really), the social scientist in me kicked in and I became genuinely fascinated by people’s beliefs, why they had arrived at them and how these might correlate or clash with other of their views.

Deborah Mattinson, in this excellent little book, has carried out these very investigations. Her clear, comprehensive and methodological account – one which is ultimately deeply humanitarian – should make sobering or unsettling reading for anybody concerned about the overall welfare of our country, whatever their own political allegiance.  

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