In Broken Heartlands, Sebastian Payne, Whitehall editor of the Financial Times, takes a road trip around ten constituencies in the north and the Midlands to work out why traditionally Labour-voting areas switched to supporting the Old Etonian, Oxford-educated Boris Johnson en masse in the December 2019 election (‘beats me’, is the prime minister’s characteristically complacent take on this question). Originally from Gateshead, Payne – an accomplished young political journalist who has long been committed to shoe-leather reporting beyond the confines of Westminster – resurrects an on-the-road format he first used to cover the 2015 election campaign for The Spectator, upgrading from his unreliable second-hand red Mini, Ruby, to a more modern model. ‘The less you hear about the car in any road trip book, the better it is going,’ he quips.
While the concept of the ‘red wall’ has become a cliché among the Westminster commentariat, evoking images of flat caps and whippets and what Payne derides as ‘a scene from Billy Elliot’, Broken Heartlands digs into the fabric of the postindustrial communities that only make headlines at election time and challenges received wisdom and lazy myths (although triumphant Tories in flat caps do, inevitably, feature).
Take the constituency of North West Durham, which is the second stop on his journey. A large and mostly rural seat in the northeast where mining and manufacturing were historically dominant, it is a ‘Petri dish of Jeremy Corbyn’s political project and how it lost Labour one of its historically safest seats’ (a Labour seat since 1950, it fell to the Conservatives for the first time in 2019). While Payne explores the history of deindustrialisation in this region with sensitivity, he also notes trends missed by your usual political safarist. He outlines how the constituency’s main town, Consett, has ‘undergone a major regeneration since the closure of the steelworks’ and seen the creation of new housing developments. A local explains that this has resulted in ‘a different type of person coming in’. Indeed, Consett has ‘become such a draw that its population is now larger than in its manufacturing prime’, Payne observes.
Between the general election of 2017 – a high for Labour under Corbyn, when the party did better than expected, gaining its largest vote share since 2001 – and the snap 2019 general election, I visited Consett in my role as Britain editor of the New Statesman. Accompanying its then MP through the town, I observed that Consett had developed commuter-belt status, its new-builds popular among residents travelling into Newcastle and Durham for work. After the Conservative landslide of 2019, I wrote about Consett as part of an exploration of the changing nature of work and demographic patterns in the so-called ‘left behind’ areas that featured prominently in political discourse at the time. The awkward truth for the Labour Party, and a theme Payne returns to throughout his book, is that many of the Tory Party’s new voters aren’t so left behind at all.
Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s former constituency and the third stop on Payne’s journey (he christens it ‘England’s new bellwether’), is another case in point. Payne notes that it has ‘gentrified’ in the decades since its manufacturing days ended, musing that the ‘passing visitor may struggle to align it with their stereotypical imagination of northern coalfields past their industrial prime’. Labour had held Sedgefield since 1983 before the Conservatives took the seat in 2019.
In the suburbs and rural surroundings of Blyth in Northumberland, very much the poster town of the ‘red wall’ phenomenon, Payne finds few ‘registration plates older than five years’ and ‘new detached homes’ that ‘dwarf terraced miners’ cottages’. ‘The recent prosperity is apparent,’ he remarks. The Blyth Valley constituency, the first ‘red wall’ seat taken by the Conservatives on election night 2019, had always previously returned a Labour MP.
A few in the Labour Party have started to recognise the changes that Payne documents. After Labour lost his former constituency of Hartlepool to the Conservatives in a historic by-election earlier this year, Peter Mandelson, one of Payne’s many interviewees (he has spoken to everyone from John McDonnell and Keir Starmer to Blair and Johnson), told me:
I was struck going back on to all the old council estates where I used to draw so much support [by] what owner-occupation and new private house-building has done; there’s a smartness and tidiness to those houses and their gardens … I can see people are proud of what they’ve achieved, they’re aspirational, and they’re not so sure now that they’ve achieved that with Labour.
Eschewing pat nostalgia for an industrial past focused on working men’s clubs and outdated family structures, Payne nevertheless allows space for the anguish of locals who crave a voice and a stronger sense of community. He is generous with his time, almost allowing readers to forget that he is carrying out his interviews mid-pandemic, shivering beside ineffective heaters outside pubs and hopping from foot to foot in people’s front gardens.
While he does not quite succeed in his quest to discover whether the collapse of the ‘red wall’ was just a blip or the beginning of a long-term shift in English politics (electoral predictions are a fool’s errand, though Payne did foresee the outcome of the 2019 poll), he nonetheless teases out the vulnerabilities in Johnson’s promise to his new voters. We learn from Rachel Wolf, a long-time adviser to Johnson who co-wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto, that not all the participants in her focus groups like the boosterish and much-hyped Johnsonian concept of ‘levelling up’. ‘Most people’, she says, ‘are terribly proud of where they live and are happy to insult it themselves, but don’t really like other people saying that it needs to be upped from down.’ Johnson himself admits to Payne that ‘lots of people in Downing Street’ have been telling him that ‘nobody understands’ what the phrase – intended to conjure up a vision of an economically rebalanced country – actually means.
‘What I have found most uplifting about these years in British politics’, Payne writes, ‘is the focus on places that were politically forgotten.’ If the first-time Conservative voters in this book are eventually betrayed by their new party, we can rest assured that journalists like Payne will be there to tell their stories.