Cambridge for Europe has been organising on-line speaker events since the early days of the pandemic. Mostly these have been on our own, though we’ve also teamed up with other European Movement local groups, memorably hosting Ian Dunt with Bath for Europe last autumn. To kick-off our 2021 series, we invited Deborah Mattinson to talk to us in late January. Deborah is the co-founder of the research agency Britain Thinks and the author of a new book, ‘Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next’.
After sessions detailing the damage of Brexit to trade and farming, it felt important to challenge ourselves with perspectives from outside our own bubble – and, let’s be honest, you can’t get much more of a bubble than Cambridge. Deborah took us through the evidence she’d built up as a researcher, in particular from a long series of conversations in provincial, traditionally Labour seats that stretched from the referendum campaign, through the 2019 election, and on to our Covid year. The voice of voters who had turned to Johnson – including some who had voted remain in 2016 – came through loud and clear.
I took Deborah’s analysis to stress four points. First, many people are utterly disconnected from politics – to a degree that activists find hard to fathom – and what they do see of it they increasingly dislike. Second, leave and remain voters really do see the world in different ways – there’s a profound divide in values. Third, many voters are making political choices not on the basis of ideas, but through hostility for those they deem the elite, and who they feel hold them and their concerns in contempt. Finally, all these factors coalesced to help Boris Johnson to victory. A simple message of ‘Get Brexit Done’ cut through to the disengaged, who felt Brexit debate was sucking the air from their immediate priorities. The mateyness of ‘Boris’ put him on their side, while attacks on him as an out-of-touch, old-Etonian failed to register with voters for whom every politician is, by definition, from the elite.
One point Deborah stressed repeatedly was that for such voters the Brexit referendum result was something different. Less a political event than a symbol, a victory for their team.
There was also a dash of cold water on hopes that events would simply deliver this electorate from the hands of Johnson’s brand of Conservatism. Voters are cutting Johnson slack on Covid, and there’s simply no appetite to hear about negative impacts from leaving the EU – however grounded in fact. Any move towards Scottish independence will likely be blamed on anything but Brexit. Moreover, the young in these areas are not so different in outlook from older generations, while nearby cities – remain voting Manchester or Newcastle – are viewed as utterly remote.
None of which is to say the picture painted didn’t offer some grounds for cautious optimism. If liberal ideas have little traction with these voters nor do regressive ideologies; concern for their local area is motivating people, not an abstract nativism. As a consequence, action to address problems on the ground and basic competence has the potential to win people over to a party of any colour.
As someone on the Zoom chat said, it was an illuminating if challenging evening, and we reached nearly one hundred attendees. For me it raised a whole set of issues. Can the values gulf be bridged? Is this something we even want to try? Is there a danger of fetishizing the allegedly authentic, ‘Red Wall’ voter – but then again is a progressive politics even possible without listening? I’ll certainly be facing the future with an added dose of realism.
Michael Clegg, Secretary of Cambridge for Europe