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Labour’s lost Red Wall voters, how different are they?

"2017 Labour voters who switched to the Tories tended to be more right-wing than initially was thought to be the case"

Since the 2019 election result, much emphasis has been placed upon Red Wall voters, and particularly the ones Labour lost. A caricature has developed that suggests that these voters represent extremes within the new political divide that swept the nation post-Brexit. Yet, is this the case or do these voters mirror the voters Labour lost to the Conservatives across the country? This blog post seeks to answer this question by analysing 2017 Labour voters by how they voted in the 2019 election. The blog splits these voters into four groups, those that stuck with Labour, individuals who defected to the Liberal Democrats, voters who defected to the Conservatives and those who defected to the Tories within Red Wall constituencies. This article identifies how Red Wall voters are very similar to voters Labour lost to the Conservative Party throughout the country, indicating that a regional focus on Labour’s problems will not necessarily help them win back voters they lost to the Tories. The blog also highlights how these voters are not as left-wing as historically has been thought to be the case, which indicates Labour may need a different approach than that of the 2019 election to win back these lost voters.

Labour’s lost voters: Who are they?


Firstly, the individuals Labour lost varied based on which party parts of their former base defected to. Younger voters (those below 35) who backed Labour in 2017 mostly stuck with the party, with a roughly even amount defecting to the Liberal Democrats and Conservative Party. However, figure one shows that Middle-aged (36-55) and older (55+) voters were much less likely to stay with Labour, with most drifting over to the Conservative Party. Red Wall voters moved over to the Conservatives at a very similar rate, especially amongst middle and older age cohorts, thus indicating there was no obvious difference within Red Wall constituencies in terms of the voters Labour lost. The key difference between these and other seats resides within the fact these seats simply contain a higher proportion of voters who were most likely to defect to the Tories.

Figure 1 - Age profiles and Labour's 2017 voters. Source: BES 2019.


Further, Red Wall voters could not be distinguished from other voters who defected to the Conservative Party. Individuals with fewer qualifications were more likely to move over to the Conservatives, but such individuals within Red Wall localities were not noticeably more likely to make the jump over to the Tories. Alternatively, figure two demonstrates that 2017 Labour voters who had obtained higher-level qualifications tended to stick with Labour or move to the Liberal Democrats, with there being no major difference in how many of these voters defected to the Tories across England compared to Red Wall constituencies.

Figure 2 - Qualification profiles of 2017 Labour voters by their 2019. Source: BES 2019

The traditional left/right divide:

The measure that takes into account the traditional divide within British politics, the left/right divide, outlines a very important finding. Figure three demonstrates that a majority of voters who stayed with Labour or switched to the Liberal Democrats reflected a left-wing or centre-left viewpoint. However, individuals who moved over to the Conservative Party reflected a centre-right or clear right-wing viewpoint. Importantly, this pattern was not significantly different for individuals within Red Wall constituencies, with the average Labour to Conservative switcher reflecting a slight centre-right position, see table one. This challenges the natural assumption that historical Labour voters who left the party in 2019 are mostly left-wing and that a return to the economic debate post-covid19 lockdowns will naturally favour the left of the political debate.

Figure 3 - Left-Right profile of 2017 Labour voters, by their 2019 vote. Source: BES 2019.

The Libertarian/Authoritarian divide:

The new cultural divide, which partly has been generated by divides over immigration and the EU, is represented by the liberal-authoritarian spectrum. Voters on the liberal side tend to be more open to the EU and its migration, whilst those on the opposite side are naturally more cautious of changes the EU brings. Figure four shows that voters who placed themselves in the centre or the liberal end of this new political divide often stuck with Labour or switched to the Liberal Democrats. Crucially, voters who placed themselves further towards the authoritarian end of the spectrum, whether it be in a moderate or strong way, were often much more likely to have defected to the Tories. Vitally, this was the same pattern for those within Red Wall constituencies, again indicating these voters are not obviously different from voters across the UK who left Labour for the Conservative Party. Table 2 shows a voter’s overall position on this new divide, and on average Conservative voters strayed towards the authoritarian end of the spectrum whilst Labour and Lib-Dem voters stuck to the centre of it. This again indicates that Conservative defectors are different to the liberal-left’s new natural base, again posing strategic problems for such parties as attracting these voters without alienating their current base could prove problematic.

4. Liberal - Authoritarian score of 2017 Labour voters by their 2019 vote. Source: BES 2019.

The EU /Brexit divide:

Settling Brexit:

The Brexit divide was also not significantly different in Red Wall seats compared to the rest of the country. Focusing on attitudes towards a second referendum, table three shows that those who advocated a second referendum mostly stuck with Labour or switched to the Liberal Democrats. Alternatively, those who were against this policy proposal tended to switch to the Conservative Party, with this trend being almost identical in Red Wall constituencies.

The Brexit divide existed across many variables that measured attitudes on the EU issue. One such example can be found within responses to the question that asked what a voter’s most preferred outcome to the Brexit political crisis would be. Individuals who stuck with Labour or defected to the Liberal Democrats mostly stated that they would prefer to have a referendum on Johnson’s renegotiated Brexit deal, with some voters going as far as to advocate cancelling Brexit altogether. Oppositely, the individuals Labour lost to the Conservative Party outlined that they preferred Johnson’s deal to be implemented without a confirmatory vote, or for the UK to Leave without a deal, see figure five. Importantly, Red Wall losses to the Tories were just as likely to respond in the exact same way, indicating there is little difference between these voters and other Labour to Conservative switchers.

Figure 5 - 2017 Labour voters Brexit preference by their 2019 vote. Source: BES 2019.

As stated before, this trend existed across a wide range of EU/Brexit related questions. Table four shows that in a forced choice between Remain and the government’s deal Labour again managed to better hold onto Remain leaning voters, whereas the Tories gained those who would advocate the government’s withdrawal deal. Critically, Red Wall voters again followed the same pattern, indicating little difference between these voters and other parts of the country.

Remain vs Leave:

Finally, how these voters cast their ballot in the 2016 referendum reflected this new divide, with Remainers mostly sticking with Labour or defecting to the Lib-Dems and Leave voters switching to the Tories. Table five shows Red Wall losses followed a similar pattern, indicating that on average these voters were not drastically different from other Labour to Conservative switchers that resided elsewhere.


Numbers and control:

Figure six shows that views on immigration followed a similarly clear cultural divide. Individuals who wanted migration to decrease and thought Labour was unable to achieve this greatly drifted over to the Tories. Alternatively, those less concerned with lowering migration flows and thought Labour could handle the migration issue either stuck with Labour or switched to the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, again individuals who took liberal positions on cultural questions tended to support a left-liberal option, whereas individuals who took more conservative stances towards cultural change defected from Labour to the Tories. Again, Red Wall voters defected at the same rate, indicating they were similar to former Labour across the country who moved to the Tories.

Figure 6 - (2017 Lab) Labour immigration competence, by their 2019 vote. Source: BES 2019.

Migration and its perceived impact:

Further, this pattern was replicated across other questions, such as the anticipated cultural impact of immigration upon the UK’s economy and culture. People who took a more liberal attitude towards migration’s impact and thought it may improve upon the UK’s economy and culture tended to stick with Labour or opted for the Lib-Dems. Alternatively, 2017 Labour voters who were sceptical about immigration and its impact instead opted for the Tories, again with Red Wall voters not being any more likely to feel this way than compared to other Labour to Conservative switchers.

The Economy:

The voters Labour lost within the Red Wall were slightly more likely to think that a future Labour government would damage the UK economy than compared to voters Labour lost to the Conservative Party elsewhere. Labour was much more likely to keep hold of 2017 Labour voters who thought that a Labour government would either stabiliser or improve the economy, see figure seven. Worryingly for Labour, individuals they lost to the Liberal Democrats also felt that a future Labour government would not be able to improve the economy. Therefore, it can again be stated that Labour’s Red Wall losses to the Conservatives were not starkly different compared to other voters Labour lost as initially thought.

Figure 7 - 2017 Labour voters view on the economy by their 2019 vote. Source: BES 2019.


Tables six shows that all voters generally perceived the Labour Party to be a party favouring much more redistribution and the Conservatives to be one that reflected a centre-ground or less redistribution approach. Further analysis shows that voters thought Labour to be a heavy tax and spend party and the Tories to be a right-wing party that advocated a low taxation and spending state. This could have been very important in explaining Labour’s losses as individuals who agreed with Labour’s left approach tended to stick with Labour. If such voters defected, or had a centre-left position, they tended to move towards the Liberal Democrats. However, 2017 Labour voters who took a centre-right or right-wing position on redistribution were much more likely to flow towards the Conservative Party, see figure eight. Therefore, this indicates that Labour’s heavy tax and spend policies may have lost certain voters to the Tories. Interestingly, these losses to the Conservatives appear to occur at a similar rate in Red Wall and other areas. This again indicates that there is no obvious difference to Conservative losses within and outside Red Wall areas.

Figure 8 - 2017 Labour voters view on redistribution by their 2019 vote. Source: BES 2019.

Crucially, this again indicates that the voters who moved from Labour to the Conservatives can be described as right-wing, with the average loss being located somewhere within the centre-right of the economic debate, see table seven. In terms of the redistribution debate, these losses might even sit within the right of the traditional divide. As a result, the assumption that Covid19, and the economic fallout from this, bringing back the traditional economic debate will naturally favour the Labour side could be wrong as some of these voters may not necessarily identify with clear left-wing economic positions.

Political perceptions:

Finally, table eight shows Red Wall voters had similar political perceptions to other voters Labour lost to the Conservatives in the 2019 election. 2017 Labour losses to the Tories throughout England thought Boris Johnson would make a better Prime Minister than Corbyn. Moreover, figure nine shows that almost all these voters disapproved of Corbyn and gave Boris Johnson a favourable rating. Further, losses to the Lib-Dems displayed a very similar pattern. Therefore, there was no clear difference of political perception in the proportion of Red Wall losses and non-Red Wall losses, again indicating such losses to the Tories were not a Red wall exception.

Figure 9 - 2017 Labour voters rating of Corbyn and their 2019 vote. Source: 2019 BES


Overall, the evidence outlined in this blog post demonstrated that Labour’s Red Wall losses in some ways are not significantly different to other voters Labour lost in the 2019 election. In particular, there was very little difference between Red Wall voters lost to the Conservatives and voters lost to the Tories outside the Red wall. There were stark differences between such voters and voters who stuck with Labour or switched to the Liberal Democrats, which reflects how the new political divide is hurting Labour’s base. Labour’s losses to the Tories tended to be more cautious against cultural changes and more likely to feel that Labour would damage the economy compared to individuals who stuck with Labour or switched to the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps most importantly, 2017 Labour voters who switched to the Conservatives tended to be more right-wing and culturally conservative than perhaps would have initially been thought, presenting long-term strategic problems to the Labour Party throughout England.

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