WREXHAM, Wales—From the late 1960s, the Republican Party barreled into the Deep South with a vitriolic ‘Southern Strategy’ that was so successful in wooing white voters in traditional Democratic strongholds that it kept hold of them for the next half-century and beyond.
Boris Johnson is attempting to pull off a similar realignment in Britain via the patriotic, anti-immigration forces of Brexit. In one of the most important elections in decades that will decide the U.K.’s future in Europe, opinion poll projections suggest the Conservatives’ plan is working with a swathe of working-class districts that have voted Labour for generations, where people are persuaded by Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done.”
A diagonal “red wall” of traditional Labour support runs from North Wales through the Midlands and up to North-East England like a bright red sash across the United Kingdom. Many of these areas voted for Brexit in 2016, and have grown increasingly frustrated by what they see as the Labour party’s efforts to prevent it from happening.
In particular, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has failed to convince life-long Labour voters that he has the gumption, decisiveness and leadership qualities to sort out one of the most complicated policy issues Britain has ever faced. He tried to advocate a Brexit compromise that both sides dismiss as sitting on the fence.
Corbyn, Labour’s most left-wing leader for a generation, is Britain’s least popular party leader since polling began, and the responses to him being experienced by Labour politicians on doorsteps up and down the country are fearsome.
At the western end of Labour’s “red wall,” the disdain for Corbyn is visceral, etched onto the faces of working-class voters whose entire families have been committed to the party for generations. Wrexham in North Wales has voted for a Labour lawmaker at every general election since 1935 and yet, as you knock on doors, approach people in the street or show your face in the local pubs the animosity towards Corbyn is vitriolic.
Many people think he has vacillated on Brexit, and they do not believe he can deliver on the most radical left-wing policy platform for generations, a platform which promises to spend tens of billions on nationalizing industries, cutting tuition fees, boosting benefits and public sector wages, and guaranteeing free broadband.
“He’s a Marxist cockhead.”
“All politicians promise too much, but Corbyn is beyond a joke.”
Wrexham is a very mixed town with affluent as well as working class areas and a Labour lead that has narrowed over the last 10 years. Despite the widespread disdain for Corbyn here, no-one seemed to believe that the Conservatives would take Wrexham. Labour just feels too firmly ingrained.
But an opinion poll conducted in the district for The Economist last week showed the Tories romping home after a stunning 20-point drop in Labour support since the 2017 election.
It will come as a shock to the residents of Wrexham if they wake up on Friday to discover that the town has indeed gone Tory. If it does, they will not be alone. Dozens of Labour seats that span the breadth of the country from here in Wales to the fishing and industrial towns of Grimsby and Sunderland in the North East threaten to fall this week.
Ian Lucas, who has been Labour’s member of Parliament (MP) in Wrexham since 2001, decided to retire when the election was called last month, but he has continued to campaign for his Labour successor and admits that Corbyn is regularly raised as an issue on the doorstep.
Asked to explain why the Conservatives could make big gains in Labour’s heartlands, Lucas did not hesitate. “Weakness of our leadership,” he told The Daily Beast.
“If it’s a choice between Labour and the Conservatives, it has to be Boris,” says Barry John, 61, who has always lived in Wrexham. “I’ve always voted Labour, because I’m working class. But Corbyn is a prat.”
The best hope for Labour in some of these Leave-leaning areas rests on what this former factory worker and labourer says he will do on Thursday: “I’m not gonna waste my fucking time; this is going to be the first time I don’t vote.”
Other party loyalists said they would vote Labour on Thursday “with a heavy heart” in spite of Corbyn.
There are millions of British people who thought they would never vote for a Conservative to become prime minister, let alone one who went to Eton, the country’s most elite boarding school. But this time around many of them are thinking about it. With hours to go until they cast their votes, pollsters say an unusually high number have yet to decide how they will vote.
Brexit is the most pressing issue for some voters in Wrexham, which is estimated to have voted 57 percent in favour of leaving the European Union.
Jane Rawlings, 69, who worked for a bank but hails from a family of miners, said her parents would never countenance voting Conservative but she has had enough. “People my age have seen a lot but the last few years have been too chaotic,” she said. “If Boris does what he says on Brexit, at least it will be over.”
Rawlings lives in Rossett, an aspirational suburb of detached red brick houses 20 minutes north of Wrexham’s town center. Ian Berkeley-Hurst was here campaigning in the heavy rain on behalf of the Brexit Party, even though he has come to accept that he has no chance of winning.
Brexit party candidates like Berkeley-Hurst were expected to be one of the main obstacles for the Conservatives in districts like Wrexham where the Brexiteer vote could have been split, allowing Labour to come through the middle.
“Fair play, Johnson has locked down the Conservative vote,” Berkeley-Hurst told The Daily Beast. “He’s been untruthful and people know he’s a liar, but they’re voting for him for one reason.”
Berkely-Hurst said he had been reprimanded by Brexit Party HQ and made to take down three social media posts attacking Johnson after Nigel Farage decided to stand down his candidates in Conservative districts and focus on taking Labour Leave votes.
Back over the River Dee in the English Midlands there are many more Labour Brexiteers up for grabs.
Johnson was in Staffordshire, about an hour east of Wrexham, on Tuesday to stage a stunt which perfectly encapsulates the subtlety of the Conservative election campaign. He smashed through a fake wall labelled ‘Gridlock’ in a U.K. flag-branded digger with ‘Get Brexit Done’ emblazoned on the front.
As he has been for much of the campaign, Johnson was deep inside Labour territory looking to make gains. Newcastle-under-Lyme, for example, one of Staffordshire’s historic market towns, has been Labour for exactly 100 years, but more than 60 percent of voters also backed Brexit.
Labour campaigners accompanied by The Daily Beast knocking on doors in one run down public housing block in central Newcastle did not encounter a single person who said they would vote Labour. One of the campaigners lowered her voice and admitted it had been “tough” defending Corbyn here, but Brexit was clearly the party’s biggest problem. “I won’t be voting Labour any more,” responded one resident. “I voted Brexit and I want out.”
Tom Hadaway, a trendy 25-year-old with a beanie hat and a tattoo on the inside of his forearm, said he was going to vote Conservative for the first time because of Brexit, despite the social pressure for young voters to stick with Labour.
“You can’t be scared of the memes,” he said. “Labour was set up to look after people who were getting shat on, but Corbyn is prioritizing people coming from other countries.”
The Labour candidate in Newcastle is Carl Greatbatch, a trade unionist with a heavy beard and engaging manner. He was only selected as the party’s representative five weeks ago, but has spent virtually every day since then pounding the streets and meeting as many voters as he can, desperately trying to stop the town falling to the Tories.
“If it tips over, it will be because of Brexit. It’s as simple as that. That’s the only reason that will happen. Not because anyone round here buys into any idea the Tories are any good for them,” he told The Daily Beast.
The final YouGov seat projections published on Tuesday night suggested the seat almost certainly would tip over into Conservative hands, along with enough other districts to give Johnson a 28-seat majority in the House of Commons (down from a 68-seat majority in their previous projection the week before.) The polls have an average Conservative poll lead of around 9 or 10 percentage points but under the British voting system that could still see the Tories fall short of a majority and allow Corbyn to become prime minister.
Labour’s grip on these northern working-class voters, who soured on the immigration and globalism favoured by the party under Tony Blair, has been eroding gradually over several decades, according to Peter Kellner, the former president of YouGov.
“The general dissatisfaction was already there but Brexit gave it a focus and an enemy: Europe, immigrants and all that. So Brexit intensified or accelerated a process that had already begun. A lot of people in communities that were strongly Labour became dissatisfied, they voted Leave and then the Conservatives—being the party of Leave—started to pick up their votes,” he told The Daily Beast.
Labour politicians like Greatbatch hope that a Tory breach in the “red wall” would only be temporary while the country deals with the fallout from Brexit, but Kellner sees the possibility that the Conservatives’ “Northern Strategy” could have an impact on political culture reminiscent of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” The Tories could morph into a party of the white working class while Labour represents younger, more highly educated voters and ethnic minorities.
“I think it's very similar,” he said. “I don't know [if it will last]. Ask me again in 10 years’ time and I can probably answer it. That's the key long-term structural question for our party system.”
At the far end of Labour’s “red wall,” Ronnie Campbell has just stood down after 32 years as MP for Blyth Valley in Northumberland. “We're obviously going to take a little bit of a battering,” he said, blaming Corbyn, his old colleague from the left of the party, for his position on Brexit.
“I told Corbyn umpteen times, if you don't take notice of the referendum—what the people said—when you knock on the door, they'll not take any notice of you,” he said.
But like the other Labour politicians who spoke to The Daily Beast, Campbell said he’d seen signs of voters coming back home as the campaign wore on and loyal Labour voters couldn’t stomach voting for Johnson.
“There's gonna be a few nervy people,” he said. “But I'm hoping that these people say, ‘Look, there's more to this than Brexit, I'm voting for Labour because I don't trust that guy.”
Lucas, the retiring MP from Wrexham, agreed that people in this red band across the country had no time for either Corbyn or Johnson. “The one thing there is not in this election is positivity. There's no enthusiasm for the election itself, let alone the candidates for prime minister,” he said.
On Thursday fed up voters will have to settle on one of them, and as a result change the course of British history.