Could Brexit wrecking ball knock down Labour’s 'red wall' as Tories eye up the party's former heartlands?

Allegra Stratton

Former National Editor

Greetings from our edit van in a carpark next to Doncaster races where we are just finishing our last film of the Battleground series and the campaign – our Red Wall Road Trip.

For most of our time on the road we’ve been looking forward to this last assignment. We’ve been on the south coast; the northeast coast of both England and Scotland; we’ve been in Kent; the Midlands, East and West; the Lakes and the south west too – over 4,000 miles and too many bacon sandwiches.

There are visceral tussles everywhere you look: the fight for the Union versus Independence in Scotland; the warrior cry of the Remainers who want to overturn Brexit; the good cheer of some young Corbynistas who crave change.

But perhaps the most audacious raid is the Tory assault on the Labour barricade of seats running across the top of England and Wales.

Labour's red wall runs along the top of England. Credit: ITV News

We started in Wrexham at a haulage firm built on an industrial estate established after the demise of coal. The boss Chris Stockton is going to vote Conservative this time and he told us he had never before felt such a strong pull away from Labour.

In the town, it was true – there was one ardent Corbynista; an occasional “Labour because that’s what I’ve always done,” and a smattering of Conservatives.

Perhaps most critical were the disillusioned Labour voters now going Plaid, Green or Lib Dem – if enough do this, it could allow the Tories through the middle.

Otherwise, here unlike other places, I didn’t find overwhelming love for Boris or a strong sense that Wrexham was going to go Tory, but polling suggests it could. Let’s see.

After a brief stop in Crewe, onwards to The Potteries: the spider web of six towns that makes up Stoke-on-Trent.

We call this the red wall road trip but it’s also a story of Pits and Pots – a trail of coal seams and clay deposits. I stood outside a technicolour superstore in Stoke right next to a brown crumbling barely-upright defunct pottery factory and waylaid shoppers dashing in to the store (over the course of the trip I’ve tried to speak to at least 15 people in each location – imprecise and impressionistic, but as a travelling reporter it's the best you can do).

James Froggatt, who set up gin bar Ten Green Bottles in Newcastle Under Lyme,ill be voting Tory. Credit: ITV News

After the scrappiness of the answers in Wrexham, this constituency slightly shocked me - suddenly, it felt more like a proper fight between Labour and the Tories. Of the 15, a few weren’t going to vote, but of the rest it was equally spread between the two. If those non-voters (disgusted by Brexit not having happened yet) were once Labour voters, this too buoys Tory chances. From here on in on the trip, it started to feel like the Tories were strongly in contention.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. In the 2017 election, Theresa May had some success in these Labour Leave seats – a success that Boris Johnson may, in this election, end up piggy backing on.

In quite a few places on the trip but elsewhere in the area, Labour's majorities have been being shaved down over the years. Indeed, Theresa May even won Stoke on Trent South seat. Because of this the Conservatives now have their eye on Stoke-on-Trent Central and North.

But in this election it isn’t enough to just find northern Tory voters – one of the things we are interested in are people who hadn’t been Tory ever before – new recruits. To finally overturn Labour majorities in these places, a slew of new Tories are needed for the Boris Brexit bandwagon. There were some in Stoke.

The bond between Labour's traditional supporters has weakened. Credit: ITV News

The next red brick along, Newcastle Under Lyme, felt like it was a particularly loose brick in the wall. Here the Tories are just 30 votes behind the Labour party. James Froggatt, who set up gin bar Ten Green Bottles, and kindly opened up for us at 11am (yes, myself and producer Nathan had half a shot of his favourite gin).

He liked the departing Labour MP Paul Farrelly but will now vote Conservative. (Have you noticed that I’ve not yet used the phrase ‘get Brexit done?’)

In the market, Imran said he would be backing the Labour Party, but mature and elegant Chantelle made us all laugh when she told us why she couldn't vote for Corbyn. "He does my head in".

Darren and Karen were voting Tory: Darren because of Brexit but also fears over Corbyn and national security.

Karen because a vote for anyone else, she said, “would drag out Brexit”.

We heard this a lot. Jane Froggatt back at Ten Green Bottles told me she would like to vote Green but also wants Brexit to happen and so believes she has no choice but to vote Conservatives.

Brexit appears to be like a tooth pick, dislodging voters previously hard to reach for Conservatives.

The industries that were central to these towns has long declined. Credit: ITV News

Derby North was our next stop and very interesting in a different way. When you get off the spaghetti of roads that has tied Derby City in knots, it’s a city we all wanted to stay in longer than our trip allowed.

We gatecrashed a Labour fundraising Grime night at Ryan’s Bar where we met the uber-talented Karnage whose good nature and talent could power the city. No fan of the Tories, he has written some deeply critical bars about Boris that after he had got over being slightly offended, even the PM might find impressive.

If it were down to Karnage, Labour might keep this red brick but even the pub manager Sam feared it might go Tory because of a little local Labour difficulty: the ex-Labour MP Chris Williamson was kicked out of the party for anti-semitism and, refusing to go quietly (insisting on Twitter he remains “the Corbyn candidate”) he is standing again. If he gets just some of Labour's (confused) voters, it could split the left and make it easier for the Tories. As it was, even at this Labour fundraiser, four of nine we spoke to were going Tory.

Karnage - a Labour supporter in Nottingham. Credit: ITV News

After that we headed into the mining areas of Nottinghamshire and first up, Ashfield where we decided to drop in on the dog walkers of Silverhill – scaling the small hillock made out of the slag heap from a nearby defunct colliery.

Again, the sitting Labour MP Gloria de Piero is off and the Tories have their tails up. If it were just about Brexit it might be, ahem, a walk in the park for the Conservatives – many here start their conversations saying, “I’ve always voted Labour but not this time…”

But it's more complicated than that. Labour's roots grew strong in the mining community - a community renowned for the strength of its fellow feeling: down a mine, to say the least, you had to have each other's back.

Layer on top of this, strife with Margaret Thatcher. Even though it was Harold Wilson's government that started the process of shutting the mines, and even though Thatcher had her early electoral successes (Darlington in 1983, Barrow in Furness 1987), she still has a bad reputation. She may not have started de-industrialisation but she is regarded by people round here as having made it worse.

So, that's what they mean when they say to me, "my grandfather would turn in his grave".

Sports Direct in Shirebrook. Credit: PA

We wanted to come here in particular because we wanted to try to get to the bottom of how this heritage is affecting their vote. At Silverhill there were different takes: Barry’s father was a miner and he would be certainly be voting Labour.

But we also met Jill whose father was also a miner and had had the opposite reaction - she was voting Tory: “All the industries have gone. The steel works, the mines, the potteries. It's all gone. We need to find new industry. That's what I think Brexit will do.”

As if to prove the point, the next door red brick, Mansfield, has already gone Conservative – it was one of a clutch of Theresa May wins in the 2017 election. We drove past the Berry Hill Park where new plush houses have recently gone up, with pricey Range Rovers outside, backing on to a field where in 1984 there was a bitter miners dispute.

The next place, Bolsover, is a slightly different Labour Leave seat - not as plush as Mansfeld and not so upwardly mobile.

Even so, this constituency saw Labour’s majority slashed at the last election from 11,000 to 5,000 and Tories do think it’s within reach.

We were here at the beginning of the campaign five weeks ago making it the first (and last) constituency we've visited twice. I will always remember former miner Michael saying to me, not far from Bolsover's fairy tale castle, that he was voting for any party that took us out of the EU, “even if it's the wrong colour”. (Though, again, to repeat: it’s not finding a Tory voter that is interesting, it’s finding new Tory voters. Which I think Michael was).

Local men in the pub told me they had told the town's Labour MP Dennis Skinner to stand down: "He's like a prize fighter who's going to be knocked out in his last fight."

For every razed colliery and high street in a death spiral, there are retail parks, posh housing developments and lively sports pitches. Credit: ITV News

So far, so anti-Labour... but elsewhere in the constituency on our trip we drove through Shirebrook. Its so-called Main Street was not so main: of 20 shops, 18 had metal shutters firmly down at 4pm on Saturday afternoon.

This town would once have roared with noise from Shirebrook colliery but now that's replaced with the new silent giant of 21st century retail, the infamous Sports Direct delivery depot.

A squat grey warehouse that shocked the UK when Dickensian style working conditions were revealed, Corbyn has rightly called out the working practices here. His modern brand of Labour does have something to offer communities like Bolsover but, from the people I have spoken to, he doesn’t seem to be landing it. Bolsover in the end may stay Labour, but whoever comes next: Labour or Tories needs to give it an awful lot more love.

Spooling forward up through the Rother Valley and then nudging right towards the Don Valley and that felt like a loose brick too. We went to a huge playing field with games as far as the eye could see where we spoke to both touchline parents and players (one entire football team told me none of them were voting Labour but for the Brexit party).

Again, a handful of former miners and loyal Labour voters, some reluctant Labour voters, but plenty of new Tory ones too. Of particular note, one father here said he would “lend” the Conservatives his vote and go back to Labour at the next election if they let him down over the next few years.

I wonder how many are thinking like this. On to Bassetlaw, Scunthorpe and then the end, Grimsby – a harbour with the heart ripped out.

Read more from Allegra's Battleground series:

It has been quite an intense experience to process through these one time safe Labour seats - we’ve followed the seam of coal across the country and skirted round clumps of clay; we've stopped to gawp at dystonian shuttered steel works waiting for heritage funding to be transformed into weekend destinations, and past the one they are trying to keep going: British Steel at Scunthorpe, newly rescued, saving 4,000 jobs.

We've seen boarded up potteries but also the sleek new companies replacing it: gleaming modernistic cubes of buildings like bet365 in Stoke.

For every razed colliery and high street in a death spiral, there are retail parks, posh housing developments and lively sports pitches – our post-industrial sweep across Wales and England showed us pockets of deprivation but also millions earning decent money with comfortable lives. These areas are changing, and with it their politics.

That's what professor Colin Rallings told us too: “You are almost getting a Topsy Turvy nature of how we used to think about British politics – which was, Labour was solid in the north hence the red wall.

Stoke-on Trent - the pottery town makes up one of the key battlegrounds in this election. Credit: ITV News

"Now it looks like the Conservatives are doing much better in parts of the north, whereas Labour sees some of its heartland areas in the north going and is doing better in cities in the south”.

I haven't mentioned the Brexit Party standing in these seats. It really hasn't come up that much apart from that footie team in the Don Valley. It is perfectly possible in the end it is Nigel Farage's party that does stop the Conservatives in these areas on the night.

It is also possible that terrible performances by the Prime Minister over the next few days, like Monday's awkward and odd exchange with ITV Calendar's Political Correspondent Joe Pike damage the Conservatives in these places.

But over the course of this election, we’ve talked to hundreds and travelled thousands of miles and here, at the end, it also feels perfectly possible the Brexit wrecking ball could knock down Labour’s red wall.

If that happens, people here will want something built in its place.