Now for the Blue Wall

Now for the Blue Wall

June 2021 | Politics

The Liberal Democrat victory in the Chesham and Amersham by-election was a major surprise. It shouldn't have been, it's been a long time coming.

The 2019 general election was all about the Red Wall, a line of safe Labour seats on the edge of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. The fall of these seats into Tory hands was the culmination of a decades long trend towards the Conservative party in northern England. Next week's Batley and Spen by-election will potentially see further evidence of this trend after recent polls showed the government leading in what looks to be a tight race.

The Conservatives have been gaining ground in these seats for years, following disillusionment against the modern Labour Party among the white working classes. Brexit accelerated this trend. The cry of "Get Brexit Done" provided historic Labour voters with a concrete reason to shift their allegiances towards a party that historically has been detrimental to their economic interests.

After years of being ignored by Westminster, nobody is taking the Red Wall seats for granted. Boris has put them at the heart of his political project. The government's levelling up agenda is explicitly designed to turn these seats into a new Tory heartland, by rebalancing government investment away from the big cities and into the small towns that dominate this area of England.

Accompanying this shift in priorities has been a populist reinvention of the Tories into a pro-Brexit party that claims to be the voice of the authentic working class. The old Tory wets who formed the left of the party have been expelled due to their opposition to Brexit. The right is in the ascendancy, while David Cameron's attempted modernisation has been firmly abandoned.

Chesham & Amersham

These changes have not gone unnoticed among traditional conservatives further south, and they're not happy. In 2021, the conversation has moved out of the Red Wall and into the Blue Wall, which is the name given to the middle class commuter belt that comprises the Tories historic heartlands. If the media and the opposition are to be believed, the government are at risk of losing their seats in wealthy parts of Surrey and Buckinghamshire.

One of these seats was lost to the Liberal Democrats last week in a dramatic by-election that followed the death of Cheryl Gillan, the long-serving local MP. The Lib Dems achieved an astonishing 25% swing to capture a seat that had previously only ever been held by a Conservative. The result sent shockwaves through Westminster because the government were expecting an easy victory. Already, it looks to have fatally wounded a forthcoming reform of the planning system that would have made it easier to build new homes in deprived areas. A reform that is said to have been a key plank of the government's levelling up agenda.

Opposition to the government's local planning policy was definitely a major factor in the by-election result. Reports from the doorsteps indicate significant concern about potential new housing developments in the prosperous small towns that dot the constituency. There aren't any current plans to build new homes in either Chesham or Amersham, but the government's proposed reforms would remove the ability of local residents to block such proposals in certain circumstance should they occur in future. That's why many Tory MPs now plan to oppose the bill when it comes before the House of Commons in the Autumn.

The Blue Wall

The Lib Dem victory in the Chesham & Amersham by-election was built on the back of opposition to local development. HS2 runs straight through the constituency, and the construction of the new high-speed railway line is causing significant disruption for some local residents. That's a set of circumstances unique only to this constituency and definitely added to the scale of the defeat. Some on the government side believe that without this complication, the Tories would have won the seat. Not everyone agrees.

Even without the planning reforms, there has been a long-term trend away from the Conservatives across the South East. This has been seen consistently across multiple elections ever since the Brexit referendum. They lost ground in the recent local elections and ended up with significantly reduced majorities in the 2019 General Election compared to two years previously. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, would lose his seat if changes proposed in the current boundary review become law.

It's unlikely that the left wing shift in the South East will lead to a large scale re-alignment at this stage. It's taken 20 years for the red wall to finally flip from Labour to the Conservatives. A wholesale re-alignment of the London commuter belt would probably take a similar timescale. However, there are probably 20-30 seats with the same demographics as Chesham and Amersham that could be under more immediate threat. Even losing these seats would be enough to create a serious dent in the Government's majority. Not all of them will flip, but some will.

Written by Alan Chatfield