The collapse of the Welsh Red Wall: What went wrong for Labour?

The evening after the night before. The Labour Party's fate was sealed when millions of people across the UK went to the polls on Thursday. Their verdict, initially in the form of the exit poll at 10pm, and later with declarations overnight, was an emphatic rejection of the party in many of its traditional heartlands.

Much has been made of the so called 'Red Wall' in northern England, but Labour defeats in north east Wales were every bit as striking. The Vale of Clwyd, Wrexham, Clwyd South and Ynys Mon all turned Conservative blue on an extraordinary night.

Wrexham had been red since 1935. It has now got its first ever female Tory MP in Sarah Atherton. This was no marginal - it took a 10% collapse in Labour support from 2017.

“This area voted for Brexit”, one voter in a Wrexham cafe said on Friday. She had voted Conservative for the first time in her life the day before.

“Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t want Brexit. Why vote for somebody that’s not doing what the people of Wrexham want?

Boris Johnson himself had stood in Clwyd South in 1997. He was heavily defeated then with less than 25% of the vote in second place. Now he has a Conservative colleague the House of Commons from the area with a 1,200 majority. There too Labour support dropped by 9%, with the Conservatives up nearly 6% on 2017.

The result in Ynys Môn, where the Conservatives only managed to arrange the selection of their candidate at the 11th hour, will be particularly galling.

As Welsh Labour members, activists and serving politicians pour over the election results, they will be asking: "Where did it all go wrong?"

UK and Welsh Labour have diverged over the issue of Brexit. Credit: PA Images

Brexit: The Defining Issue

Despite First Minister Mark Drakeford's support for Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, over the course of the last year since Drakeford himself took office, the UK party and Welsh Labour have diverged on the issue of the day: Brexit.

While Corbyn eventually embraced the idea of a second referendum, he had always remained on the fence, saying he would stay neutral in any future vote on the issue. Welsh Labour on the other hand has been unashamedly behind a second referendum, saying it would campaign "passionately" to remain.

However, in 2016, in that referendum that’s done so much to change politics in the UK, nearly 53% of Wales voted to leave. That's put Labour on a collision course to defeat in many of their strongholds ever since.

Sarah Atherton MP took Wrexham from Labour for the first time since 1935.

In Wrexham, 59% of the electorate backed leave in 2016. In Clwyd South, 60%, and even in Ynys Môn, more than half of voters back leave.

After three and a half years of complex, bitter and tribal conflict in Westminster, leave supporting Labour voters were confronted with the now infamous “Get Brexit Done” slogan. It is a message that seems to have cut through and spoken to those people more than anyone could have predicted.

In Clwyd South, one voter said she voted Conservative for the first time and would do so again in future if she felt the policies spoke to her the most.

There were some areas that refused to fall into that Brexit pattern. In Blaenau Gwent, the largest leave vote in Wales at 62%, Nick Smith of Labour retained his seat. This was the Brexit Party’s big target in Wales. Although they did well beating the Tories into second, in truth they did not threaten to win in the end.

No one would ever have expected this seat to fall. After all, it was once the home of Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot. But when Blyth Valley, Workington and Bishop Auckland in England go blue - nothing is impossible.

Jeremy Corbyn walking out of his front door in Islington on Friday morning, rather than the Downing Street as he would have hoped. Credit: PA Images


Jeremy Corbyn’s time as Labour leader is nearly over. He’s said he will not fight another election and certainly will not be in charge by party conference next September. A shock victory in his party’s leadership election; the unsuccessful attempted coup following the 2016 referendum; and then his better-than-expected performance at the last general election have led the party to where it is today. The crushing defeat he was predicted to suffer in 2017 came to pass, but in 2019.

It looks as though he may have had a personal inkling of Labour’s fortunes in Wales this time around. After all, he only visited once for a weekend during the campaign. That decision by Labour Party HQ may have been partly based on his popularity, or lack thereof, in Wales.

One voter in Bridgend, who voted Conservative for the first time in his life, said, “I can’t stand Corbyn. [He] is the biggest problem with the Labour party.

“For him to put all that through to us - you’re going to get this, you’re going to get that. We’ve just come out of a recession. Where’s the money? You’re going to borrow the money and you’re going to go bust”.

There was a resigned atmosphere among Labour activists even in Blaenau Gwent where they retained their seat.

The undoubtedly radical manifesto, calling for nationalisation of mail, rail and water as well as free broadband and a green jobs revolution, could not convince enough Labour supporters and wavering voters to support him.

The issue of antisemitism, which grew to a fierce and nasty zenith during the campaign, never went away. The perception that he was too urban and metropolitan to genuinely understand the working class also hurt his party in Wales.

The tribal Labour vote in some parts of Wales appears to be dead. Voter after voter has told ITV Cymru Wales today how they broke the habit not only of their lifetime, but their parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes.

One voter in Wrexham said they found it 'strange' voting for the Conservatives.

Asked how it felt, one voter in Wrexham said it had been “strange”.

“I always voted Labour. I think it was strange because I’d been brought up as Labour but I think it’s time for change.”

They will now become floating voters - no party can guarantee their support again. They want to policies that will directly appeal to them. But before that many want Brexit out of the way.

Corbyn was a factor but voters like Lynette Czerniak who considers herself working class said the Conservative Party is now the party that speaks to her most. Imagine reading that five years ago.

Boris Johnson has managed to appeal to voters behind his party’s usual reach. Labour now has to work out how it wins those voters back.