The Labour Party’s loss of seven former “red wall” seats to the Conservatives in 2019, followed soon afterwards by an eighth in a by-election, should not have come as a shock, given the change in public attitudes that had been taking place in the region for three decades.
But that change went largely unnoticed until it burst onto the political scene, first in the Brexit referendum of 2016 and then in the 2019 election. Now the question is whether the Tories can hang on to, or even build on, their gains.
The answer lies not in specific economic policies – not even, in the longer term, the success of the levelling up agenda – but in whether people’s attitudes and sense of political identity have shifted rightwards firmly enough to make the switch of so many of their votes from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019 more than a one-off event.
The north-south divide in the public’s economic values, including wealth distribution and welfare, has narrowed over the past 30 years as attitudes in the north have shifted rightwards under the influence of socio-demographic factors and regionally varying educational levels.
The change in attitudes has potentially significant implications for the long-term political loyalties of the North East into the future following the Labour Party’s domination of the region for the past century or more, as attitudes, once adopted, are harder to shift than votes in particular elections.
Both main parties, therefore, have everything to play for in a region like the North East, where for many decades in the past Labour has appeared to believe there is no need to deliver improvements because people will vote for them anyway while the Tories thought there was no point because people would never vote for them. Both parties were correct; but no more, following the 2019 general election, with its seven Conservative gains.
These issues are explored in the latest annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey report ‘Broken Britain? Public Attitudes in an Era of Crisis’ from the National Centre for Social Research (NCSR).
Overall in England 58% of people of all socio-economic characteristics believe that economic resources are unequally distributed and favour re-distribution from the well-off to the less well-off.
London has the most left-wing attitudes towards economic inequality, though the 62%-61% gap between the capital and the north (North East, North West and Yorkshire & the Humber) is no longer statistically significant. People in the midlands (East and West) are 57% left wing and those in the south of England outside London (South East, South West and East of England) are 56% on the left.
Only 10% overall have right-wing economic values, with little difference between London and the north (both 9%), the midlands (10%) and the south (11%). Others are neither left nor right.
The NCSR notes that:
“The north-south divide in attitudes appears to have narrowed since last time BSA examined regional differences in attitudes in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
“[Professor Sir John] Curtice (1992), for example, found that, over the period 1989-91, 71% of people in the north agreed with the statement ‘Ordinary working people do not get their share of the nation’s wealth’ compared with 59% in the south, a 12 percentage point north-south gap. In 2021, the equivalent figures [were] 68% in the north and 64% in the south, a four-point gap.”
Though the BSA does not explore the reasons for the rightward shift, it comments:
“[O]ne important factor is likely to be the shift to the right which occurred among Labour Party supports (who are disproportionately to be found in the north of England) after New Labour came to power in 1997.”
The report offers two possible explanations for London being virtually as left-wing as the north. One is that:
“while productivity and incomes are higher in London, the capital does not outperform the rest of the country on all measures of economic security. In particular, the capital contains a relatively low proportion of home-owners (50% compared with 65% in England overall), and renters tend to be more left wing”.
The other possible explanation for London’s relatively high level of support for redistribution is its higher proportion of people with higher education.
Welfare, including pensions
On the separate question of welfare, including pensions, which cost the Treasury £302mn in 2020-21, London is the most pro-welfare (47%) followed by the north (37%), the south (35%) and the midlands (30%). Anti-welfare attitudes have strengthened in both the north and south since 1989-91, but more so in the north. In London, however, pro-welfare bias persists even after controlling for differences in the socio-demographic composition of regions, such as education, age, benefit receipt and income.
As the BSA notes:
“Curtice (1989) found evidence that people in the north were more pro-welfare than those in the south. For example, 31% of those in the south agreed that: ‘if welfare benefits weren’t so generous, people would stand on their own two feet’, compared with 26% in the north.
“People in both regions are now more likely than they were to agree with this statement (40% in the south and 38% in the north – a difference that is no longer statistically significant), with attitudes in the north having shifted further towards being anti-welfare so that they are now closer to attitudes in the south.”
Liberal-authoritarian attitudes (and Brexit)
The liberal-authoritarian divide over issues like traditional values and stiffer sentences for crime is again not simply between the north and south but in some respects between London and the rest as well as to a lesser extent between urban areas (defined as towns with more than 10,000 population) and rural areas.
Overall, 34% of people in London, with its younger, more cosmopolitan, and better educated population, can be classified as liberal – defined as supporting the right to individual freedom over conformity to common rules and practices – compared with 20% in the south and only 17% in the north and midlands.
The respective figures for authoritarians are 28% n London, 38% in the south and 43% in the north and midlands. Others are neither liberal nor authoritarian. In urban areas outside London, 19% are liberals and 41% authoritarians, and in rural areas 7% are liberals and 39% authoritarians.
The report comments:
“There are no significant differences between regions other than London in the proportion of people who are classed as liberal. There is, however, some evidence of a north-south gap in the proportion of people who are classed as authoritarian”.
“Unlike the north-south gap in left-right [economic and welfare] attitudes, the authoritarian attitude gap between the north and the south persists after controlling for background characteristics (age, education, national identity and socio-economic circumstances).
“This suggests that there may be other factors, beyond differences in socio-demographics, behind the tendency for people in the north to hold more authoritarian attitudes. Further work would be needed to understand what these might be.
”However, given the association between attitudes to Brexit and libertarian-authoritarian values, one place to start would be to explore some of the factors posited to be behind the Brexit vote, including attitudes to immigration and wider economic discontent.”
While the evidence of a north-south divide in attitudes is mixed, says the report, there remains stronger evidence of a gap in underlying party identification. In the north, 37% of people identify with Labour compared with 29% who regard themselves as Conservatives. This position is roughly reversed in the south.
The tendency of people in the north to continue identifying with Labour in spite of having more right-wing economic values than in the 1980s and ‘90s suggests that party identification is slower to change than vote choice in any particular election. So, the 2019 swing to the Conservatives in previous “red wall” constituencies will not necessarily be maintained.
The long-term political colour of former red wall constituencies in the North East like Blyth, North West Durham, Sedgefield, Bishop Auckland, Stockton South, Darlington, and Redcar, which turned blue in 2019, depends on whether the new right-wing economic and welfare attitudes of voters there have resulted in their political self-identification as well as their votes transferring to the Tories.
In the longer term, as younger voters in the north come of political age holding different views from previous generations on economics and welfare, there is an opportunity for the Tories to win their loyalty – but only if they deliver on their economic promises, says the BAS.
People in the north do not appear to be inherently more left wing than those in the south, but swings in attitude to the right will take time to become embedded and lead to reliable right-wing voting patterns in the region. The long-term and short-term prospects for the Tories are therefore different:
“At the moment the north continues to identify more strongly with the Labour party. However, that may well change if, in the absence of a clear ideological reason to continue choosing Labour, voters can be encouraged to shift allegiances and form new party identities. However, such a shift will take time.
“For the Conservative Party, delivering on its promise to level up the north may not be necessary to shift the underlying values of northern voters in its favour (this shift already being underway). In the short term though, they are likely to need to deliver on that commitment, along with other electoral promises, in order to gain and/or retain the support of previous northern Labour voters.”
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