state of the nation the first ‘red wall’ seat taken by the Conservatives on election night 2019, had always previously returned a Labour MP.
A few in the Labour Party have started to recognise the changes that Payne documents. After Labour lost his former constituency of Hartlepool to the Conservatives in a historic byelection earlier this year, Peter Mandelson, one of Payne’s many interviewees (he has spoken to everyone from John McDonnell and Keir Starmer to Blair and Johnson), told me:
I was struck going back on to all the old council estates where I used to draw so much support [by] what owner-occupation and new private house-building has done; there’s a smartness and tidiness to those houses and their gardens … I can see people are proud of what they’ve achieved, they’re aspirational, and they’re not so sure now that they’ve achieved that with Labour.
Eschewing pat nostalgia for an industrial past focused on working men’s clubs and outdated family structures, Payne nevertheless allows space for the anguish of locals who crave a voice and a stronger sense of community. He is generous with his time, almost allowing readers to forget that he is carrying out his interviews mid-pandemic, shivering beside ineffective heaters outside pubs and hopping from foot to foot in people’s front gardens.
While he does not quite succeed in his quest to discover whether the collapse of the ‘red wall’ was just a blip or the beginning of a long-term shift in English politics (electoral predictions are a fool’s errand, though Payne did foresee the outcome of the 2019 poll), he nonetheless teases out the vulnerabilities in Johnson’s promise to his new voters. We learn from Rachel Wolf, a long-time adviser to Johnson who co-
wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto, that not all the participants in her focus groups like the boosterish and muchhyped Johnsonian concept of ‘levelling up’. ‘Most people’, she says, ‘are terribly proud of where they live and are happy to insult it themselves, but don’t really like other people saying that it needs to be upped from down.’ Johnson himself admits to Payne that ‘lots of people in Downing Street’ have been telling him that ‘nobody understands’ what the phrase – intended to conjure up a vision of an economically rebalanced country – actually means.
‘What I have found most uplifting about these years in British politics’, Payne writes, ‘is the focus on places that were politically forgotten.’ If the first-time Conservative voters in this book are eventually betrayed by their new party, we can rest assured that journalists like Payne will be there to tell their stories.
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Literary Review | october 2021 10