University of Reading: Risks for political parties of ‘Red Wall’ preoccupation

Political parties risk misreading voters’ motivations in future election campaigns and policy-making, partly because of a preoccupation with the ‘Red Wall’, new research suggests.

Drawing on British Election Study data from 2018 and 2019, “Red Wall, Red Herring?” uses a new measure of economic security to critique widely-held assumptions about the circumstances, beliefs and voting intentions of the UK electorate. It suggests a focus on the “Red Wall” voter as synonymous with left-behind areas and voters across the UK creates a blind spot as to who is economically left-behind, where they live and what policies might serve their needs in future.

The report warns all parties need to better understand the impacts of an economic gap between Britain’s younger graduates and non-graduates around the UK – women under 50 and men under 40. While both groups face a harsh economic climate now, the graduate ‘will haves’ are likely to accrue wealth over their lifetimes, whereas there is a risk non-graduates become ‘won’t haves’ and are much more likely to be left behind. Older generations, including non-graduates, are more likely to be the ‘haves’. These dynamics could become more pronounced as the cost of living crisis bites.

The report also shows that the parts of the population with the strongest support for Leave, who are most concerned about immigration and most socially conservative, are the most economically secure.

Dr Roosmarijn de Geus, from the University of Reading said:

“Britain’s most economically insecure voters live in all parts of the country. This isn’t just about particular places – parties need to build coalitions of support between the ‘haves’, ‘will-haves’ and ‘won’t haves’ within constituencies across the country.”

Professor Jane Green fron Nuffield College at the University of Oxford said:

“Politicians urgently need to consider who is least ready to withstand the cost of living crisis, and the implications for a future election,” said “Such crises separate people and households according to whether they have buffers like savings, a home, a secure income, or the ability to borrow. Losing that economic security could have a major electoral impact.”

The report finds that:

Conservative gains among older voters and older non-graduate voters in recent elections mean that – if anything – the Conservatives have likely increased their support among economically secure voters. If this sense of economic well-being has deteriorated since, the Conservatives could suffer in coming elections, as they did at the recent local elections.
Although the Conservatives’ predominantly economically secure voters are more likely to have financial buffers in place, the party may struggle to hold onto its less economically secure voters through the cost of living crisis. Labour has performed better among economically insecure voters, but may struggle to hold on to graduates as they become more economically secure over their lifetime.
The most economically insecure people in the population are non-graduate women under 50 and non-graduate men under 40. They live across Britain, not just in the Red Wall, and are especially vulnerable to the current cost of living crisis.
While the ‘Red Wall’ may be a useful label for a group of constituencies, the profile of its typical voter as economically vulnerable and culturally conservative is not supported by data for the whole population from just before the last election.
Social conservatism is not higher if people live in areas of high unemployment or low house prices per se; it is higher among older non-graduates wherever those people live
Economic insecurity and Brexit support corresponds for younger non-graduates, but their average support for Leave is lower than for older non-graduates, and they are more likely to be non-voters in British elections.