Since December 2019, the spectre of ‘the red wall’ has haunted almost all political discourse in Britain. In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s general election defeat, the mainstream press aggressively pedalled a profoundly damaging narrative to explain the party’s loss, arguing that we have entered a new era in British politics – one in which former Labour heartlands in the north had been seduced by the Tories because they shared their inherent conservatism on issues of culture.
And with establishment politicians largely accepting this narrative as fact, issues such as the support for transgender rights or Palestinian solidarity are met with knee-jerk dismissals by politicians and journalists for fear of it not being well received by northern voters.
As a result, the red wall has come to be a well-established shorthand for northern England’s inherent cultural conservatism. Seen through this lens, the north is a place where family, nationalism and traditional gender roles are what matters; where Britain’s past is always viewed with a sepia-tinted glow; where nobody cares about anything that isn’t happening in their local community.
A damaging stereotype.
In this way, the north is painted as the diametric opposite to ‘metropolitan, multicultural London’. It is a place where tradition always triumphs over innovation, and therefore a place that will always be afraid of the new. By this logic then, politicians must tread carefully should they choose to discuss issues like climate change or colonial history in this part of the country.
Indeed, the red wall is currently being presented as the main obstacle to Britain taking meaningful action against climate change. Newspapers are reporting that if the government pushes ahead with its plans to make the UK’s emissions ‘net zero’ by 2050, it will be punished by losing its newly-won Labour seats in the red wall since constituents in the north don’t care about trendy, international topics like global environmental catastrophe.
However, on closer inspection, it seems that this picture of the inherently culturally conservative north doesn’t actually match up with the reality on the ground. A YouGov poll conducted in May this year revealed that the cultural and social attitudes of those living in red wall constituencies generally matched with the views held by the rest of the country.
Since 2019, commentators have insisted that protecting traditional culture and identity was now all that mattered to red wall voters. However, when northerners were asked about their views, they proved to be no more culturally conservative than the country at large. Case in point: three-quarters of respondents agreed that it was important to teach children British colonial history. While, on the question of whether transgender women should be allowed to use female changing rooms, 35% said they should, compared to only 28% who said they should not. Ultimately, the poll shone a light on just how far away the myth of the culturally backwards north was from reality.
At the heart of the red wall myth is a simple narrative: that northern England always voted Labour until Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership backstabbed its working-class supporter base by siding with the young and cosmopolitan, who hold ‘woke’ cultural values.
Of course, the problem with this narrative is that it falls apart if anyone actually interrogates its premise. Historically, the Labour party did not have automatic political control over the north. Even Liverpool, the corner of the north that is today seen as most vehemently opposed to the Tories, used to regularly elect Conservative candidates for at least half of its parliamentary constituency seats up until the early 1970s.
Indeed, the north has always been more complex and contradictory than its narrow depiction in the mainstream. And, what’s more, this need for the region to stand in for simplicity and authenticity goes back much further than our current culture wars.
Pioneering not pedestrian.
The industrial revolution of the 19th century transformed the role of the north in Britain’s national identity, with the country’s old feudal centres of power, like York and Durham, now accompanied by the mushrooming, industrial cities of Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, and their surrounding towns.
Well-heeled writers, originally from the south of England, like Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and later George Orwell, used stories about factory-dwelling, impoverished northerners as a way to illustrate the gap between the myth and the reality of life in Great Britain.
But this narrative, however affecting, presented just one dimension of life in the north. When northern writers and artists finally broke through into mainstream culture after world war two, they also drew on this notion of a frustrated working class. However, their depictions of northern life also revealed an appetite for engaging creatively with cutting-edge cultural issues.
Take A Taste of Honey, the era-defining play (and film) written by 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney in 1958. On the surface, its tale of a schoolgirl from a dysfunctional home left pregnant and abandoned in a dilapidated flat is an apt example of the typical ‘it’s grim up north’ narrative. But at the same time, the Salford-set play’s engagement with interracial relationships and the experiences of gay men in 1950s Britain was pioneering, demonstrating how this context of industrialisation placed the north at the sharp end of the cultural conversation, rather than merely languishing behind its southern counterparts.
Given Salford’s location in the global trade network – as the endpoint for ships bringing commodities from across the world to Manchester’s factories – it is not all that surprising that the protagonist’s love interest in the play would be a transient Black sailor. At a time when Britain’s racial minorities were rarely featured in mainstream literature, A Taste of Honey subtly wrestled with the connection between interpersonal conflicts and the consequences of Britain having a global, multi-racial empire.
Meanwhile, Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse’s novel that came out a year after A Taste of Honey, similarly depicted the hardships of working class northern life, but with an inventive twist, taking a comically surreal tone that transcended the gritty realism that art engaging with life in the north had come to be associated with.
When it transitioned to the big screen, Billy Liar chimed with the trend in British New Wave cinema of northerners being witty, inventive and slightly obnoxious – no longer merely dour-faced members of the proletariat, quietly accepting their lot in life. A Hard Day’s Night, the cinematic vehicle for The Beatles, arguably provided the high point for this cultural movement.
A generation later, northern artists would enjoy another renaissance as deindustrialisation began sweeping the region. With Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher going to war with many of the industrial communities in the north, the 1980s was the era in which the idea of the Labour party as synonymous with the north was really crystallised.
But far from responding to the economic destruction of their towns and cities by just telling more dreary tales of reactionary life, northern artists instead embraced creative and innovative forms of expression.
Clubs like Eric’s in Liverpool, the Hacienda in Manchester and the spiritual home of northern soul the Wigan Casino, became cathedrals of sounds that delivered cutting-edge music and ideas from around the world, inspiring a new wave of musicians who would capture the imagination of the rest of the country. From Joy Division to Echo and the Bunnymen to the Human League to Soft Cell, the reason these artists were so successful was not because they represented an image of northern identity as being fearful of the outside and closed off to the new, but because they embraced the eccentric and the avant-garde.
These traditions of culturally progressive northern artistic expression trouble the dominant narrative we are fed about those living behind the red wall.
I grew up in the north of England and know firsthand that the region has long-held traditions of anti-racist struggle, queer organising and international solidarity campaigns – all issues that today’s politicians act like the mere mention of will make a northerner spontaneously self-combust.
It has no doubt been a useful tactic for the right to paint the north as inherently culturally conservative, as it enables them to imbue their opposition to everything from climate change to feminism with an air of working-class legitimacy.
But the truth is, when it comes down to it, shifting political support in the north has less to do with an inherent fear of cultural progression, and far more to do with people’s material conditions – such as the high level of homeownership in certain constituencies, or the long-term impact of austerity across the region as a whole.
But instead of actually working to address these deep, structural issues, it is far easier for politicians to rely on this tired, reductive picture of those in living in red wall constituencies – places these MPs have often hardly even visited.
Anyone who has really spent time in these places knows that the north is not just defined by traditionalism, parochialism and social conservatism, but is a conflicting and confounding place, which incorporates a variety of cultural histories that can’t be reduced to a single, simple stereotype. To pretend otherwise is to insult the radical, international and intellectual cultural legacy that the north has produced over the past hundred years.
This is the third article in Contesting Culture, a new series asking who really owns British culture. Read part one and part two here.
Kojo Koram is a writer and an academic, teaching at the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London.