Brexit was not the reason the “red wall” fell in 2019. Brexit may have been the excuse many lifelong Labour voters needed to finally take the plunge and vote Tory, but the root causes behind so many seats switching to the Conservatives are older than Brexit (and were also present in 2017).
Seats like Ashfield and Bolsover have been gradually turning blue for years. As then-Labour MP for Ashfield, Gloria De Piero, put it in February 2019 (speaking about the loss of working class seats like Mansfield to the Tories in 2017):
Lazy thinking put the loss of these heartland seats down to Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but the left’s decline with many traditional voters had been coming for some time.
Labour should not assume that wayward voters in 2019 were just “lending” their votes to the Tories in order to get Brexit done before “coming home” in 2023-4. The Conservatives won seats from Labour in 2017 that had never before voted Tory (such as Copeland, Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Stoke-on-Trent South). All the Tory gains from Labour in 2017 voted Conservative again in 2019.
Voters are not stupid. Traditional Labour constituencies that voted Tory in 2019 were not voting against their interests. They had not been tricked, duped, lied to, or conned by the Tories. They knew what they were doing, and what they were doing was actually pretty sensible.
They’ve tried voting for nobody (so-called “voter apathy”) or voting for protest parties, but the BNP was too racist to be an alternative to Labour and UKIP and the Brexit Party could never actually get into power. So, instead, they’ve forced the Conservative Party to listen to them. The Tories now depend on working class votes to remain in power and will be desperate to give constituents in their new seats exactly what they want to keep them voting blue.
Seats in the north and Midlands have reconfigured the Tory party to serve working class interests. Voters in some northern seats felt they had “nowhere to go” but Labour. So they’ve created somewhere else to go. They’ve changed the Tory Party. That is smart politics on their part. Recognise it as such. Voters are smart. Listen to them.
How can Labour win those seats back? First, don’t insult the voters in those seats. Don’t blame the result on the media, because that implies that voters can’t make an informed and independent choice; don’t blame the result on smaller parties, because you actually want voters from those smaller parties to come back to you so you’re better off not labelling them traitors; stop saying the Brexit referendum was a mistake, because it makes you sound undemocratic, like you don’t agree with the process because you didn’t like the result, and definitely don’t say voters were ignorant or racist for voting for Brexit.
Quoting from Gloria De Piero again:
Many said people voted to leave because they were too stupid; others said they had been conned; some even accused them of racism – even though one in three non-whites voted to leave. The apparent lack of will to engage with the fact people voted Leave because they may have liked what they heard, worried me and when some on the left made these points, it made me deeply uncomfortable. They are talking about the voters that Labour needs to attract in order to win again, most of whom are the very people they came into politics to represent.
At the same time, Labour cannot try to “out-Tory” the Tories. The party should not (and, because of the membership, likely could not) pivot into being an anti-immigration, anti-Europe, socially conservative party. If it wants to win, Labour has to be a true progressive coalition. Yes, it needs to listen to voters in traditional seats, but it needs to find a way to deliver what they want without surrendering its core values.