Boris Johnson needs to embrace ‘Red Toryism’ to win over pro-Leave voters in Wales
As yet another General Election looms on the horizon, there is a group of voters which is increasingly attracting attention among political commentators – pro-Brexit, traditional Labour voters.
With Conservative PM Boris Johnson resigned to losing a considerable number of seats in middle-class Remainia, it is becoming increasingly clear that he hopes to offset these losses by making gains in working-class Brexitland.
While Brexit has been portrayed by some in the London chattering-class bubble as a “provincial English enterprise”, it is often forgotten – or perhaps unknown to many – that Wales delivered a Leave vote of 52.5 per cent. Indeed, the Welsh Leave-Remain gap of 5 percentage points was wider than the overall UK-wide 3.8 percentage-point difference.
A number of Welsh authorities delivered handsome Leave votes, including Blaunau Gwent (62 per cent), Torfaen (59.8 per cent), Wrexham (59 per cent), Caerphilly (57.9 per cent), and Flintshire (56.4 per cent).
In addition to this, research produced by the Henry Jackson Society suggests that prevailing expressions of “Welshness” are more associated with pro-Brexit sentiment among young British people, when compared to primary “British” and “Scottish” identification.
In the recent European Parliament elections, the Brexit Party came top in 19 out of 22 Welsh council areas. Labour meanwhile, finished in a woeful third place across Wales – coming behind the Brexit Party and pro-Remain Plaid Cymru as its vote share dropped by 12.8 percentage points from the 2014 EP Elections.
While Labour’s embarrassingly muddled position on Brexit is not doing it any favours, there are other factors driving the party’s electoral decline in Wales. Traditional one-party dominance has given rise to complacency and rampant nepotism in Labour’s Welsh strongholds – with the patience of voters in such areas wearing incredibly thin.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that PM Johnson feels that his clearest route to electoral success is winning over pro-Leave, habitual Labour Leavers in the provincial Midlands, Northern England, and Wales. But if the PM thinks that this strategically important group of voters in post-industrial Wales will fall into his Tory lap, purely on the basis of Brexit, then this would be a serious miscalculation.
And it is going to take a lot more than the pledging of modest spending increases after an era of cutbacks to public expenditure.
There is an unhealthy attitude which exists in more affluent Tory-facing parts of Southern England – that they subsidise other British regions and keep the other home nations “afloat” – including Wales. As well as coming across as incredibly unpatriotic in a British sense, it is missing of important context – that three decades of Thatcherite neoliberal orthodoxy ripped the heart out of many of Wales’ industrial communities.
Free-market globalism and chronic public underinvestment has seen many Welsh coastal towns – once the pride of Britain’s seaside scene – disintegrate right before our eyes.
Like in the case of working-class Labour voters in Northern England and the provincial Midlands, the Conservatives will have to engage with the socio-economic concerns, as well as the patriotic, communitarian spirit which runs deep in many pro-Leave, habitually Labour-voting Welsh folk.
Yes, they may well hold more socially conservative views on issues such as immigration, crime, and law and order, but they are also likely to be in a favour of a more statist, protectionist economic approach after seeing their communities fall victim to the predatory winds of globalisation and struggle under the politics of austerity.
This is admittedly an uncomfortable truth for English small-state, free-market liberals in the Conservative Party.
This is the politics of cultural and economic security – socio-culturally protectionist and economically social-democratic. If the Conservatives are serious about making advances in working-class Welsh Labour territory, it will have to undergo a process of fundamental reinvention.
This will include a dramatic policy reset – a rejection of social-Darwinian economics, adopting a more caring attitude towards public services, and acknowledging that the market alone cannot deliver the level of investment required to regenerate Wales’s ailing former coal mining and steel heartlands, along with its “hollowed out” coastal communities.
This is ultimately a matter of political will. The articulation of a positive, inclusive, post-Brexit vision under charismatic leadership, could help the Conservatives break into unfamiliar territory. Relatively prosperous, M4 corridor, Labour-held constituencies such as Gower, Bridgend, and Newport West, along with much of the north of Wales coast, are all in play – with the right policy offerings and meaningful political engagement.
But Labour-to-Conservative seat conversions can only be achieved through an embracement of “Red Toryism” by PM Johnson and his team of policy advisors.
A radical post-Brexit settlement must bind together our home nations – and face up to the fact that in recent times, the Westminster political elite in London has let down and abandoned “left behind” communities across the UK – with a good number of them being in Wales.
Whether PM Johnson will be given the opportunity to lead such efforts, remains to be seen.
Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the London-based think-tank The Henry Jackson Society.