Wall of noise? How useful are theories of electoral geography built on socio-demographic composition?

AuthorEnglish, Patrick

In the build-up to the 2019 general election, James Kanagasooriam put together a Twitter thread on electoral geography and demography that would shape not only the narrative, but also arguably the political debate and strategies of British politics and its parties for the next three years. (1)

Developing the idea of a 'red wall' spanning across northern Wales and the north and midlands of England, Kanagasooriam picked out constituencies in which the Conservatives were 'underperforming' based on their demographics, according to a statistical model. A latent 'Labour-leaning force' was holding back a blue tide that should have otherwise swept through places like Bolton, Burnley, Grimsby and Wakefield in recent electoral cycles.

That tide was of course to crash over the barriers shortly thereafter. On 12 December 2019, Labour lost no fewer than 61 seats nationwide in a catastrophic election result - 50 of them came in the very regions Kanagasooriam had highlighted.

Since then, endless news coverage, commentary, polling and research, and even policy-making, has focused exclusively on areas dubbed the 'red wall'.

The term has evolved, to say the least, since 2019; many definitions of 'red wall' areas go well beyond Kanagasooriam's original terms. Now, 'red wall' has come to mean a general placeholder for any and all 'working-class' (some definitions even forgo that) constituencies in England north of Coventry that are either currently held by Labour, or were lost at that fateful 2019 general election.

Some debate engages in the concept of a 'red wall 2.0' - a potential further raft of Labour-held constituencies across the North and Midlands which, according to some, are surely soon to fall to the Conservatives in coming electoral battles. Or, if they are not part of an inevitable slide into blue, they ought to at least form the target strategy for a Conservative Party looking to expand its majority at the next election (a prospect which seems incredibly fanciful now, but perhaps not in the immediate months after 2019).

At the same time, further political musings have wondered where an equivalent 'blue wall' might be found. That is to say, if there were areas in which Labour were polling beyond levels that socio-demographic models might predict, then could it also be the case that, in constituencies elsewhere, the Conservatives could be punching above their weight?

From Tim Bale, Aron Cheung, and Alan Wager's 'yellow halo' to my own 'blue wall' research, the hunt has been on for constituencies in which the Conservatives could be particularly vulnerable to a challenge from their left at the next election. (2)

Again, these ideas have not been limited merely to discussions on Twitter or blue-sky thinking. After the Liberal Democrats took Chesham and Amersham from the Conservatives in the June 2021 by-election, Ed Davey marked the occasion by hammering blue bricks out of a life-size wall with a small orange hammer in front of the assembled press. His party are now actively and openly targeting Conservative-held council and Westminster seats across the South and East of England in a distinct 'bring down the blue wall' strategy.

Students of Scottish politics may even be aware of a further socio-demographic vulnerability model north of the border; my work on the 'yellow belt' looks at constituencies where pro-Union parties are currently underperforming based on the social composition and latent 2014 'No' vote in the area. (3)

While undoubtedly James Kanagasooriam's conception of a 'red wall' was an important and positive interjection of a typology of constituencies ahead of the 2019 general election, questions remain as to how useful the various shades of walls, halos and belts are to us now. What can these models of electoral vulnerability and volatility tell us about the future of British politics? Have they become so broad and overused as to become meaningless? Do forthcoming boundary changes make this whole avenue of research completely pointless?

I would argue no. Despite some rather broad and contrasting definitions and conversations - about what is or...

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