Three years on from 12 December 2019, when Boris Johnson broke through Labour’s “red wall” of constituencies in the north of England to win a seismic general election victory, Guardian writers return to three of them find out how those voters feel about him, the government, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer.
Blyth: ‘I would definitely vote Starmer now, 100%’
Three years ago, a stunned Huw Edwards shook his head in disbelief as he reported on the BBC that the Blyth Valley race was neck and neck, “a sentence I never thought I would utter on an election night programme”.
He was not the only one. The south-east Northumberland seat had been Labour or Independent Labour since the 1950s. Its strikingly larger-than-life MPs had included the corruption crusader Eddie Milne, the foxhunting, high-living barrister John Ryman and the plain-speaking former miner Ronnie Campbell.
It was always Labour, and then on 12 December 2019, in the first declaration of the night, it wasn’t. Ian Levy, an NHS mental health worker, scraped in with a majority of 712 for the Conservatives.
Three years on, people still argue about the reasons. Many say it was as simple as voters disliking Jeremy Corbyn. Others disagree. Ian Lavery, the former Labour party chair and the MP for neighbouring Wansbeck, said: “I can tell you in three seconds. It is one word and that is Brexit. No other reason.”
Blyth Valley was a big leave constituency, and Labour raising the possibility of a second referendum made people angry, said Lavery. “I voted remain but I vehemently supported leaving once we had the referendum. People basically said we had turned our backs on them, we had refused to accept the democratic processes, we ignored their vote … ‘Are we not good enough? Do you just take us for granted?’”
Then there was the Boris Johnson factor, his boosterism and repeated promise to “get Brexit done”. Lavery said: “You have got to bear in mind that these so-called red wall constituencies have been left behind for generations.”
Lavery, who won his seat by just 814 votes, fully expects Blyth to return to Labour next time, when it is likely to be part of a new Ashington and Blyth seat after Boundary Commission changes, with him, he hopes, as the candidate. “Brexit, as far as ordinary people are concerned, is done and dusted,” he said.
Anna Watson, an NHS worker and Blyth councillor, agrees that voters in the town felt anger towards Labour over Brexit. “Most people in Blyth felt Brexit was the key to get things changed. It was so big on the doorsteps. We totally underestimated the feelings of people … they were saying they felt ignored and they had been left behind for too long. People felt patronised.”
Do people regret voting Conservative? “Here in Blyth in the past few months … yes. If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said no.”
Part of that change is mounting uncertainty over the big hope for Blyth – a planned giant car battery factory that could bring 3,000 jobs and enormous knock-on benefits. It will either happen or it won’t.
“Boris Johnson has gone,” said Watson. “The factory has gone up in smoke, as far as the government seems to be concerned. They haven’t given it the support that’s needed to get it off the ground.”
Watson thinks Keir Starmer still has a job to do, profile-wise. “If I was to knock on doors today, a lot of people would say: ‘I don’t really know who he is’. If you were to ask people who’ve been around a long time, they would say he’s just another career politician.”
In Blyth town centre, the once bustling, busy market is now only half a dozen stalls. Ron Coltman has had a stall for 40 years and had voted Labour all his life until 2019.
He is a fan of Rishi Sunak. “I just don’t think Labour are strong enough any more,” he said. “The people who are in government have to have brains, and I don’t think Keir Starmer will ever be strong enough or liked enough to be a prime minister.”
Rebecca Layton, 37, a nursing assistant, also voted Labour until 2019. “Labour just didn’t have many things to do for Blyth,” she said. Plus, it had a “loony” leading the party. “I know they say don’t vote for the person, vote for their policies, but he was the face of Labour and he was going to rule the country? No, sorry. Boris Johnson was the better man to do it.”
Layton thinks she will vote Labour next time and said she liked Angela Rayner but was not sure about Starmer. “We need a normal, working person in government.”
Lesley Nicholson, a retired care assistant, did not vote at all last time, citing Corbyn as the reason. “I’ve always voted Labour and might next time. Keir Starmer seems OK. The problem is, no matter who gets in makes promises and they don’t keep to their promises.”
The two issues that repeatedly came up were how quiet and depressed the town centre was, and uncertainty over the battery factory. Levy, the Tory MP, did not respond to Guardian requests to contribute to this article.
At Blyth’s quiet docks, Paul was fishing. He declined to give his full name and said he first voted Tory when David Cameron was leader. “I don’t really trust any of them but I would definitely vote Keir Starmer now, 100%,” he said. “He comes across as being a lot more honest. I did think Boris did really well through Covid but then, well … the fact that he’s a compulsive liar.” MB
Bury South: ‘We don’t do politics or religion but people just bring it up’
Julie Miller’s hair salon used to be a refuge from talk about politics. Nowadays, the subject is never far from anyone’s lips – and people are tearing their hair out.
“We don’t do politics or religion but people just bring it up,” said Miller on a quiet weekday afternoon in Radcliffe market, seven miles north of Manchester. “They say they [the Conservative government] have been a big waste of time, they won’t vote for them again. It’s the way everything’s handled.”
Immigration is a recurring theme – “We’re full to bursting. It’s even coming up on Coronation Street” – but Miller said the state of the NHS was the “worst thing” for her customers.
Her son is one of about 22,000 people in England who have been waiting more than two years for an operation. “I think there’s a lot of blame on Covid for the backlog, but it was going on before that.”
Noreen Molloy, waiting for her haircut, said the NHS was “being unpicked step by careful step and it’s going to disappear”. The 77-year-old former headteacher, a Labour voter, added: “I weep and I’m fearful for this wonderful country.”
Miller, 55, said she had not voted for a long time but would choose Labour at the next election. Asked why, she exclaimed: “Change!” and added: “I feel as though I’ve been let down.”
It has been three years since Boris Johnson redrew the political map of England by convincing traditional Labour supporters in places such as Radcliffe to vote Conservative for the first time. But as temperatures plummet and prices rise in the grip of the biggest fall in living standards since records began, the mood among voters is dark.
Mavis Hanley, 84, a former Conservative voter huddled in a thick winter coat in the function room of Radcliffe football club, said: “This government has taken us back to the 1960s with the strikes and people not getting their money. People will say it’s not worth it, I’m going to kill myself.”
Asked who she would vote for at the next election, she scoffed: “It won’t be for this lot, put it that way! No way.”
Radcliffe is a typically white working-class former mill town in the middle of Bury South, one of 30 “red wall” constituencies that fell to the Tories in 2019 after 22 years of Labour rule. The Conservative candidate, Christian Wakeford, beat his Labour rival by just 402 votes, making Bury South one of the most marginal seats in the UK.
Wakeford defected to Keir Starmer’s party in January amid anger over Johnson’s leadership, so it is Labour that will be defending that slim majority at the next general election, which must be held no later than January 2025.
Eamonn O’Brien, the Labour leader of Bury council, said his party would win a 6,000- to 7,000-vote majority if May’s local election results were replicated in a general election. Labour retained control of the authority, winning one seat, while the Tories and Lib Dems lost three each.
O’Brien said many voters were “instinctively” ruling out the Conservatives, but this was not necessarily translating into Labour gains. “Are they all saying I’m going to vote Labour? Quite a few are but there’s a lot that are still waiting to be convinced.”
Labour has taken encouragement from the result in Sedgley, a ward that is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community, many of whom turned their backs on Labour in 2019 over antisemitism. In May, the ward returned Labour’s biggest majority and became its safest seat on the council.
The “red wall” did not fall to the Conservatives overnight. Labour’s share of the vote had fallen by 16.2 percentage points in Bury South since Tony Blair’s second term in 2001, while the Tories’ had risen by 11.5 points, accelerated by the area’s support for Brexit in 2016.
One stallholder in Radcliffe market, who did not want to be named, said she voted Tory in 2019 because she liked Johnson, “although he was a wayward soul”. Now he’s gone, her vote is up for grabs. “If he was still there I would probably vote for them, but as things are I’m undecided. It’s either Conservative or nothing,” she said.
The latest poll of “red wall” voters, by the firm Redfield and Wilton Strategies, had Labour 23 points ahead of the Conservatives at the end of November.
Russell Bernstein, the Conservative group leader at Bury council, said it was not impossible to recover the party’s fortunes. “While the polls at the moment are not very encouraging, in my opinion that’s more down to an anti-government view than people suddenly falling in love with Labour,” he said. JH
Penistone and Stocksbridge: ‘I like politicians who shout’
This year, for the first time, the South Yorkshire town of Penistone has a food bank, run by volunteers. The constituency also has its first Tory MP, after the seat of Penistone and Stocksbridge was won in 2019 by Miriam Cates, a South Yorkshire local.
Out shopping on the high street, Maria Towton said she had voted specifically for Boris Johnson and was not keen on either of his successors. “They pushed him out,” she said. “I felt bad for him, I thought he was good and he did his best. I don’t think anyone could have handled the pandemic better. I think he’s more clever than he appears to be. I’m a bit disappointed at what’s happened.”
She said she had “backed the winner” since the 1980s and was now leaning away from the Tories, though not enough to vote Labour as things stand. “Starmer has no personality,” she said. “He seems like a decent bloke and perhaps he’s good at what he does but I don’t think I’d be voting for him now.”
The constituency sits in the triangle between Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, and is mostly made up of industrial or former industrial towns and villages, also taking in the Sheffield commuter suburb of Chapeltown.
The previous Labour MP, Angela Smith, stepped down in 2019 after 14 years. She was one of the cross-party group of MPs to form their own centrist party, beginning as Change UK and later becoming known as the Independent Group for Change, then eventually disappearing entirely. Change was what the constituency got, but it was not the change people wanted.
Cates has called for more devolution of powers to councillors and communities to deal with local issues that often land on the desk of the MP. While this would be “fabulous”, said Neville Shiggins, the apolitical mayor of Penistone, it would need to come with the necessary funding.
“My opinion, with devolution, every activity that comes to be managed at a more local level will need the resource and the money to come with it. So if they’re paying X to a person in London to do that work, that X has to come [here],” he said.
There is a feeling of having been left behind. Stephen Lineker, who has lived in Penistone all his life, said he did not follow politics but he had noticed a decline in the town over the last 15 years. “It’s like a ghost town round here,” he said. “It’s all right for them in London, they get all the brass. If we want owt doing, we don’t get owt. This village is gone.”
While the semi-rural town has benefited from small grants here and there, a large chunk of the money put into the constituency is going to neighbouring Stocksbridge.
Last Monday, Sheffield city council approved £24.1m in funding for Stocksbridge through the government’s towns fund, including a £14.6m transformation of Stocksbridge town centre with a new library and community hub.
Karen Tyas has run Cafe Creme in Penistone town centre for a decade, in a building that is owned by the Conservative party. She has been absorbing the rising cost of ingredients and energy and said that if she passed the costs on to customers she would be charging £7 for a cheese sandwich.
“Nobody’s going to pay that. It’s bonkers,” she said. “I am quite a positive person but this could go on for years. I’ve weathered a lot of storms and I’ll make sure I’m all right – but there are times you just think: eek.”
Things are not working and another political change would be welcome, residents say, though there’s no clear frontrunner. One man picking up his lunch from the butchers summed it up: “They all piss in the same pot.”
This could be one reason Ukip historically did very well in this constituency, coming a close third in 2015. The Brexit party garnered 4,300 votes in 2019, when support had dwindled across many parts of the country.
For many, though, Brexit was a rebellion that went beyond the principle of EU membership and was about not feeling listened to. Ann Rackham, a retired research psychologist who grew up in Penistone and lives in the town, considers herself European and voted to remain in the EU but is a big fan of Nigel Farage and would still like to see him as prime minister.
She said: “I think he has a lot of common sense. Farage is the man we need at the moment. I like politicians who shout, or at least who are assertive.” RV