Book of the week: Broken Heartlands by Sebastian Payne
An ‘engrossing, warm and insightful’ guide to Labour’s evisceration in its traditional heartlands
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The collapse in the 2019 general election of the “red wall” – Labour’s bulwark of historically safe seats across the Midlands and the north of England – “was a pivotal moment in British political history”, said Julian Coman in The Observer.
Not only did it hand Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority, but it “plunged Labour into an existential crisis from which it has yet to emerge”. For if the party could no longer appeal to the “kind of people it was set up to fight for”, what hope did it ever have of regaining power?
In a bid to understand what happened, the Financial Times journalist Sebastian Payne bought a red Mini Cooper and set off late last year on a road trip through ten red-wall constituencies. Blending “local footslogging” and analysis with interviews (he talks to every living Labour leader except Jeremy Corbyn), his book is an “engrossing, warm and insightful” guide to Labour’s evisceration in its traditional heartlands.
Various explanations have been proffered for the red wall’s collapse, said Martha Gill in the London Evening Standard – among them Brexit, Corbyn’s unpopularity, and the “wokeism” of Labour’s metropolitan leaders. Payne suggests that while all played a part, the origins of the shift lie in deeper structural changes.
From being “industrial and collectivist”, many red-wall seats have become “wealthier and individualist, home to prosperous middle-class homeowners” – in other words, natural Tory voters. And while poorer pockets continue to exist, these “have lost their sense of community and their emotional connection to Labour” – making them susceptible to the lure of Brexit, which Payne calls a “gateway drug” to full Tory voting.
Anyone curious about “how the hell Dennis Skinner lost his seat after 49 years, or Workington turned Tory for only the second time in its history”, should read this engaging and admirably open-minded book, said Janice Turner in The Times. Payne, who grew up in Gateshead, and whose relations overwhelmingly voted Leave, has an instinctive rapport with people who feel overlooked and abandoned by Labour.
As one of his interviewees, the ex-Labour MP Ian Austin, puts it: “It’s a bit like a wife who’s been telling her husband for years, you’re not listening to me”, and who, after decades of being ignored, finally decides to get a divorce. Payne doubts that such voters can ever be wooed back, especially as the party’s elite still doesn’t seem to be taking them very seriously. “Labour’s ignored ex-wife has already moved on” – and taken up with her “new fancy man”, Boris Johnson.
Macmillan 432pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99
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