‘The Truth About the Blue Wall’, Unherd, 2 August 2021.

If an American tells you that they’re “Waiting for the other shoe to drop”, they mean that, having had one piece of news, they’re expecting another piece pretty soon. The idiom apparently originated in New York where the residents of the city’s tenements could hear their upstairs neighbour kicking off, first, one shoe and then, inevitably, after a second or two, the other.

Ever since the shock win for the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham back in June, many on the centre-Left have been waiting for something equally arresting to confirm that it wasn’t a one off, and that the Tories might be in as much trouble in some of their southern heartlands as Labour are in the north.

But is YouGov’s eye-catching Blue Wall poll really that other shoe dropping? And even if it is, isn’t it more a faint echo than a darn great thud?

That the Conservatives are losing support in some of their seats which heavily backed Remain in 2016, and where over a quarter of residents hold a university degree, actually shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

After all, the flip side of the electoral analyst James Kanagasooriam’s observation that there were Labour seats where voter demographics (and values) meant they could easily turn Tory was always that the Conservatives should expect to lose a few seats, too. In fact, one could almost argue that it was always going to be a matter of when, not if.

It could even be that Covid is speeding the process up. The Government’s recent responses to both the ping- and pandemic have once again given people the impression that (a) it doesn’t really know what it’s doing, and (b) there’s one rule for it and one for the rest of us. Added to which, the search for space among relatively affluent city dwellers may be leading to the surrounding outer suburbs and small towns welcoming younger, better-educated and more socially liberal voters

Chesham and Amersham may be just the kind of constituency they are moving to. But if that formerly true-blue stronghold is in play, then so are a bunch of home-counties seats, although most of those are rather more vulnerable to the Lib Dems than to Labour.

Labour appears to be doing better, with its support rising four points from 20% to 24%. But if you’re excited about those numbers, then it probably says more about you than it does about them. A score of 20% doesn’t even merit the label “low base”. It wouldn’t even come close to what the party would need to pull off an unlikely victory in a classic three-way marginal. In 2019, there were just 11 English seats which had a vote-share gap between first and third place of less than 20 percentage points, and even among those the lowest winning vote share (Labour’s in Sheffield Hallam) was 34.6%.

To be fair, YouGov reckons that: “If the swings were uniform across all constituencies, Labour would be set to gain a total of nine Blue Wall seats, and the Liberal Democrats three.” However, if you look carefully, four of those Labour wins would be in London (Chipping Barnet, Chingford, Hendon and Kensington) and only one (Wycombe) is in what most analysts would think of as the “real” Blue Wall (the others being Milton Keynes North, Stroud, Truro and Falmouth, and one of the Bristol seats).

And anyway, as YouGov goes on in the next breath, even if Labour were to gain the seats listed, “it would not be anywhere near enough to offset the party’s losses in the so-called Red Wall in 2019”. The fact remains, as Keir Starmer’s new Director of Strategy, Deborah Mattinson (whose book does a great job of helping to explain those losses) has reportedly told Labour MPs: the party still has a long way to go if it is to win over the older, less-educated, and culturally conservative voters it desperately needs to get back in order to stand a chance next time round.

Apparently, she also pointed to polling and to focus group research, in which she specialises, that suggests support for Boris Johnson is waning. It’s also worth remembering that, at the end of last year, before the vaccine roll-out became a reality for most people, the gap between the two parties had narrowed. But even as the nation’s gratitude begins to fade, it remains the case that, nationwide, both the PM and the Conservative Party retain significant leads on the measures that matter — trust on who would best run the economy and who would make the best prime minister.

Sure, there are some worrying numbers for the Tories in the YouGov poll. Some 54% of its Blue Wall respondents disapprove of the Government (the same proportion who say it doesn’t listen to people in their area) – and that’s compared to only 30% who approve. Moreover, 47% think the Government is taking the country in the wrong direction compared to just 32% who reckon it’s taking us in the right direction.

Furthermore, some of the Blue Wall’s decidedly liberal views on cultural questions (for instance, 66% of voters polled by YouGov agree that a wide variety of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures is part of British culture compared to 50% of voters in general and 54% in the Red Wall) might give the Government pause for thought about upping the ante on its ongoing war on woke.

More generally, the fact that 55% think the Conservative Party is out of touch is hardly good news for Boris Johnson — until, that is, you realise that 58% say the same of the Labour Party. And Lib Dems shouldn’t read too much into the fact their score on that metric is 39%: a mere 18% say that they’re in touch.

Ultimately, though, most Conservatives — except perhaps those southern Nimby MPs desperate for ammunition in their battle to prevent their government carrying through meaningful planning reform — won’t (or at least shouldn’t) get too worked up about what the poll purports to tell us about the Blue Wall. This is mid-term: they should expect some serious discontent and dissatisfaction.

In any case, a drop from 52% support in 2019 to 44% support now can be made to sound steep but ultimately, in most of their heartland seats anyway, the worse that’s likely to happen to Tory candidates at the next general election is that they end up having to count the votes rather than simply weigh them.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/08/the-truth-about-the-blue-wall/

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