When Deborah Mattinson was announced as Keir Starmer’s new Director of Strategy I decided to re-read her recent book looking at Labour’s defeat in 2019, Beyond the Red Wall, to see if I could find any clues to Labour’s future direction. Please learn from my mistakes and do not bother.
I should declare an interest early on as someone who grew up in Consett, in the North West Durham seat that, pre-Laura Pidcock, was one of Labour’s safest and who now lives in Carlisle, a seat that has gone from one of our top targets in 2015 to an afterthought in 2019, despite having a Tory MP who would struggle to pick himself out of a line up. I’ve read more than enough patronising pieces about what voters really think Up North. If Mattinson adds something to the team, may it be her focus on repeating messaging; I would gladly never hear the phrase “the battle to save Darlington Library” again.
In all fairness, Mattinson does at least avoid the most aggravating cliches with barely a whippet in sight. Having made her name running focus groups as part of New Labour’s ‘Shadow Communications Agency’ under Philip Gould, Mattinson previously wrote a well reviewed book (Talking To A Brick Wall) about this work after the 2010 election defeat before leaving to found the pollster BritainThinks.
The book has a couple of issues which are not the author’s fault. One of the issues she can’t be blamed for is the unfortunate timing of the pandemic which derails the intended travelogue format of the book before she can even get to the 3rd of her chosen locations in Stoke after the briefest of stops in Hyndburn and Darlington to meet selected voters. There’s really not enough material left from the zoom meetings & follow-up to keep the interest up and the result is a book that is both slight and a slog to read through.
This fact unfortunately does emphasise the faults in the book’s structure. The focus groups themselves make up most of the work although we barely learn anything about the participants apart from the most well trodden cut outs of the thousands of other pieces from the Red Wall. This is down to the shortcomings of focus groups in general as you can only get so much out of questions like “which hat a political party would be?”, and the strain shows a lot more when extended to book length, even one as short as this.
The most glaring example of this is when a group was “asked which fictitious character Corbyn was most like, ‘Where’s Wally’ was the… answer.” And why was this? Because “By failing to take a clear position one way or another, or even saying how he personally would vote in his second referendum that his own party was recommending, he had effectively absented himself from the debate”. I have to say I do not remember the Where’s Wally series tackling these themes.
What also stands out is how similar the voters in each group are. While it might be the case that Hyndburn, Darlington and Stoke really are so very similar, you can only tell which area is being talked about by how often Darlington library is mentioned as opposed to pottery. It’s hard to shake the feeling that by only focusing so hard on one very specific type of voter in those seats you’re missing out on the bigger picture.
For example it’s mentioned early on that the tipping point age you became more likely to vote Tory in 2019 was 39, so the fact the youngest named focus group member is 40 (and they’re only mentioned in the context of struggling to work Zoom) suggests a lack of curiosity about younger voters Labour also lost in those seats. Mattinson notes that “age correlates closely with qualifications, and the new battle lines seem now to be more about age than class” but then seemingly has no interest in the younger Red Wall voters who also went tory and how their views might differ from the more typical media image.
This is a shame because it might have tempered some of the real fear of young people that runs through some of these groups with scare stories about “young women deliberately becoming pregnant by multiple fathers, drug addicts and dealers or the ‘professional poor’’ and “intimidating groups of teenagers hanging about on street corners”. One suspects these supposed teens might actually be in their mid-20s.
Mattinson’s lack of interest in questioning voters about what comes up in the focus groups also means that it quickly becomes a repetitive series of transcripts with little to no insight. Even baffling obvious contradictions, such as how group members hate out of town supermarkets and blame them for killing the high street while raving only a few pages later about out of town clusters, are left unchallenged when finding out what voters think when asked would have been really interesting.
This isn’t to say there is nothing of interest in the book though with a few points scattered throughout to catch your attention. The section about focus groups of Labour voters under the Blair / Brown governments thinking that their local area doing well must be an exemption to the rule and that most of the country had to be doing worse is very revealing about why they started to drift away.
It also has interesting echoes in the current focus groups already talking about how they want to see redistribution away from the south as well as towards their own communities, which could be the first sign that Levelling Up isn’t going to be enough for new Tory voters, or the fact that “Only half of those who did vote Labour [in 2019] said they identify with the party”, which points to worries that the Labour vote could be further hollowed out in future.
There’s also a few pointers in how Labour might be moving with Mattinson now part of the leadership again, although they probably won’t instil hope in most members and certainly not in anyone regularly reading this site. It’s a struggle to decide whether the praise for Lord Ashcroft’s 2005 Tory immigration policy as if was a progressive dream or the line about focus groups asked to choose typical Labour voters picking “the ones who looked the most needy – the homeless guy, the woman in the wheelchair” instead of “ordinary people” like them was the most depressing but it certainly didn’t fill me with hope for future policy direction.
Given the usual criticisms of Starmer’s leadership, a book this uninspiring, tired and low on ideas would seem to be the last thing needed. We can only hope he didn’t see himself in it. Labour does need to regain Red Wall voters, but it equally does not need to surrender itself to condescending interpreters of some lost mystical tribe of Atlantis. Simply communicating what they are for and how they would achieve their vision would help not only in the Red Wall, but across the country.