Published:

Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne

The first thing Sebastian Payne prompted me to do was to order a copy of English Journey by J. B. Priestley. For Payne starts his book in Gateshead, where he grew up, and is sporting enough to quote what Priestley wrote about it in 1933:

“No true civilisation could have produced such a town, which is nothing better than a huge dingy dormitory.”

Payne is not a second Priestley. He is neither such a good writer, nor so rude. But he is a good investigative journalist, who wants to understand what happened in the Red Wall seats where the Conservatives made such inroads in 2019.

The term “Red Wall” was coined by the pollster James Kanagasooriam to describe seats which had never returned a Tory MP since 1997 (or in some cases since the Second World War); voted on average by 63 per cent for Brexit (compared to the national average of 52 per cent); had a substantial Labour majority during the 1990s; and also had a substantial minority Tory vote.

Four such seats went blue for the first time at the 2017 general election: Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Walsall North.

Thirty four went blue in 2019, and another 14 stayed in Labour hands. Payne quotes a Labour aide who says the 2019 result could have been even worse:

“We looked at the North and Midlands and thought the whole thing could just go, it could have been another Scotland for us.”

But to lose 34 seats is still pretty bad, and Payne sets out to discover what happened, and whether 2019 “was a fluke, or a realignment”.

His method is to visit ten Red Wall seats, each of which gets about 30 pages of text: Blyth Valley, North West Durham, Sedgefield, Wakefield, Don Valley, Great Grimsby, North East Derbyshire, Coventry North West, Heywood and Middleton, and Burnley.

In the course of his researches he interviews 120 people, including many former Labour MPs, often spoken to remotely, in part because of the pandemic. So we hear from Tony Blair, David Blunkett, David Miliband, Alan Johnson and many others.

In Blyth Valley, he meets Ronnie Campbell, former miner, Labour MP there from 1987-2019, when he retired because of a heart complaint; and Ian Levy, former mental health nurse, who proceeded to win the seat by 712 votes for the Conservatives.

Levy told Payne how he came to stand:

“We would often go out for a meal or a drink, me and my wife Maureen. On the wander back, when I’d had a few beers, I would start complaining about the state of the town centre: the state of the bus shelters, the feeling of despondency there was in the town where people feel really, really let down, and that their vote is taken for granted.

“I think she was happy to hear this, once, twice, maybe 30 times. But once it got to 40 or 50, she’d absolutely had enough. I remember this one night in particular she said, ‘Either do something about it or shut up.’ And I said, ‘Right, OK then.'”

The next day he told her he was going to stand for Parliament. His “gut feeling” took him towards the Conservatives, but he found there was no Conservative Association in Blyth Valley, so he wrote to David Cameron, explaining his passion for Blyth, the problems he had identified and how he intended to fix them.

Much to his and Maureen’s surprise, he received a positive reply, and in 2016 was invited to CCHQ for an interview, after which he became the prospective parliamentary candidate.

His first campaign, in the 2017 general election, was run with £500 donated by Matt Ridley, described by Payne as “the aristocratic science writer and libertarian campaigner based in Northumberland”.

Levy’s daughter and her friends distributed leaflets, and the Conservative vote rose to 15,855 (it had been 8,346 in 2015), but the genial Campbell was still well ahead, with 23,770 votes.

Two years later, the Conservative vote increased again, to 17,440, while Campbell’s successor fell back to 16,728. Levy in his second campaign had won a famous victory.

“One of the nuisances of the ballot,” Lord Salisbury once remarked, “is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means.”

There is a temptation, when seeking to explain what happened in the Red Wall seats, to pretend to greater knowledge than is actually possible.

It can be difficult enough to know what is going on inside one’s own head, let alone anyone else’s, as one makes up one’s mind how to vote. Here is Payne on his own decision in the EU Referendum of 2016:

“On both sides of my family, almost everyone voted Leave. I was deeply torn: my northern hinterland and instincts pulled me towards Brexit, but after twenty minutes in the polling booth, my head put a tick in the Remain column.”

One rejoices to find such a balanced outlook, such conscious doubt, in a reporter for a newspaper, The Financial Times, which expressed such dogmatic enthusiasm for remaining in the EU.

There is an overwhelming sense, in every place visited by Payne, of having seen better days. Great industries have collapsed,  so has the communal life which they engendered, and handsome town centres are left to rot.

Local pride is wounded at every turn by evidence of neglect, shoddiness and former greatness. The prosperous, of whom there are more than one might think, flee to houses on the periphery.

And as Payne explains, the Labour coalition has broken down:

“From its inception, the party was built on a Hampstead-to-Humberside electoral alliance, bridging metropolitan liberal voters, typified in the north London enclave, to the working-class voters in England’s working-class towns. Brexit annihilated this alliance, but Labour’s shift on other matters set the stage for the demise, according to Blair.”

Blair talks at considerable length to Payne. The ingenuity with which he justifies himself is impressive, and his self-righteousness is insufferable.

Nothing is ever Blair’s fault. Norman Tebbit, speaking from his office in the House of Lords, strikes a different note:

“There were mining communities in rural areas where there was very little other work. Unfortunately we could have run those mines down much more slowly. We could have done more to help to bring jobs to those areas. There was a deep and profound economic and social change that went on, which was adverse to those local people.”

One of the paradoxes of Payne’s account is that he talks to so many politicians, he does not always allow the voices of local people to be heard.

We instead get the generally rather bland language of professional politicians, discussing what to do about the Red Wall seats, what to do about Brexit, and still cut off from the people who in 2016 seized the chance to make their voice heard, administering a most tremendous shock to the metropolitan liberals who had ignored them for so long.

The weakness of Theresa May after the 2017 general election turned out to be a trap for the Remainers. Peter Mandelson tells Payne how Blair assembled a group of like-minded Labour figures and told them they had “a real opportunity” to get Leaver voters to think again.

After they had spent some time trying to persuade Leave voters that leaving was not such a great idea, Mandelson told Blair “We’re not gaining traction here”, but Blair would not accept this.

The People’s Vote campaigners were not thinking straight. As Mandelson says, the question of “what would be on the ballot paper of a second referendum…was insoluble”.

Labour, which in 2017 was still promising to implement the referendum result, ended up in a ridiculous position at the 2019 election, seen by Leave voters as an attempt to wriggle out of getting Brexit done, and Johnson won a thumping victory.

Johnson enters this book at the end, campaigning in May 2021 in the Hartlepool by-election, another famous Tory victory:

“With Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, he paced up the seafront in his trademark blue suit – sans coat, despite the weather. He was mobbed. Soon, the traffic piled up as every car stopped to point and shout, ‘Boris!’ He was the Pied Piper in the middle of a hurricane. He asked each voter he stopped to talk to if the party could count on their support. Bar some who were uncertain, every one answered in the affirmative. No one said they were backing Labour. The response was unlike any I have seen to any politician on the campaign trail, in any election: dozens of Hartlepudlians wanted selfies and elbow bumps with the Prime Minister. You cannot imagine David Cameron or Theresa May eliciting such a response.”

Payne later interviews Johnson:

“Recalling the scenes on the beach front, I asked why he felt he was so personally popular with working-class voters, despite his Eton and Oxford background? Was it that he was seen as an unconventional political insurgent? After running his hand through his mop of hair several times, Johnson said, ‘Look, it beats me.’ He appeared to be on the cusp of revealing more, before restraining himself. ‘It’s not about me, this is about this country.'”

Yes, it is about what kind of country we are, what kind of nation. And to cast light on that question, I hope another author, a latter-day Priestley, will make an English journey and spend more time talking to random members of the public, unimportant people.