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