Roughly 100 or more similar working-class-based seats form Britain’s “Red Wall.” The wall — named for Labour’s traditional color, red — stretches from northern Wales in a northeasterly direction until it reaches the North Sea in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This stretch of land has provided successful Labour campaigns the base from which they could reach out to Britain’s middle class.
That has changed in recent decades. Pits and factories have been closing throughout the region since the 1970s, bringing joblessness, low wages and community decay in its wake. Labour victories, mostly under then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, between 1997 and 2010 didn’t do anything to change this trajectory. To borrow from a famous Tory campaign poster, Labour wasn’t working for these people anymore.
Labour’s vote plummeted across the Red Wall in the 2010 general election. The Tories, still viewed as the class enemy, rarely gained much from this collapse. Instead, votes went to anti-immigration or small, nationalist parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party or the British Nationalist Party. Labour won all three Stoke seats, but no candidate received more than 45 percent in areas where majorities or 60 percent totals were once the norm.
Then came Brexit. Leaving the European Union galvanized English and Welsh working-class voters like no issue in modern times. Red Wall towns often voted to Leave with up to 75 percent of the vote; 69 percent of Stoke voters backed Leave. Labour itself was now split between its ancestral heartland and London-based Remainers and failed to offer voters a coherent message. As the Conservatives, first under Theresa May and now under Johnson, united in favor of Brexit after the referendum, working-class voters started to do the unthinkable and vote blue.
Labour held onto most Red Wall seats in the 2017 election, but their margins again dropped. Stoke South elected its first-ever Tory, and races in Stoke North and Central were tighter than ever. Today, the Tories are tipped to win in Stoke North and have a fighting chance in Stoke Central. In all, Conservatives are expected to win more than 20 ancestral Labour, working-class seats.
It’s not difficult to see why when you visit these places, as I did on Tuesday. Despite some signs of revitalization, the town center in Hanley is a hodgepodge of empty shops and businesses just getting by. One old unused building had a tree growing out of it, and the clientele of the pubs I stopped in were white and elderly.
There’s another element behind the Tory rise: patriotism. Phil Corrigan, chief political correspondent for the Stoke Sentinel, says “left behind” areas such as Stoke resent the lack of public and private investment in their communities. I heard this directly from two men at a local pub, both of whom decried the London elites who they say don’t care about them or their towns. He told me voters here are also more supportive of the armed forces, in which their children often serve, and are offended by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s weak stances on Islamist groups and the Irish Republican Army. Corrigan views the discontent as justified: “Stoke has been in decline for the last 40 to 50 years.” For people here, it seems Brexit is just another word for nothing left to lose.
As I board my train back to London, I spy a statue of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the china company that still bears his name, at Stoke’s station entrance. His innovations brought steady jobs for life to Stoke residents and earned him the town’s gratitude. Stoke’s most famous innovator today is Denise Coates, founder of the global online-betting leader Bet365. Coates is now a billionaire, and her firm sponsors the local soccer club, the Potters. But Bet365 employs only 4,300 people around the world, and fewer than 500 at its Stoke headquarters. That’s not going to get Coates a statue or bring Stoke back.
Red Wall voters are gambling that Brexit will bring them back. If Johnson wins, it will be up to him to make sure their bet pays off.