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The People’s Priorities: Recognition, Redistribution and Conservative Hegemony

Kostas Maronitis

Abstracts

The article examines the emergence of the “Red Wall” as a descriptive term deployed in explanations of Labour’s electoral collapse and the Conservative’s new direction as the party of those who have been left behind by the free mobility of labour and de-industrialisation. While there is a growing body of literature that examines the continuous adaptability of the Conservatives to electoral challenges as well as to meeting social, cultural, and economic anxieties via the concepts of statecraft and the de-alignment of the British electorate, there is little published as to how the construction of a new collective identity — that of the “Red Wall” — has reinforced the hegemony of the Conservative party. The article makes three different yet interconnected arguments. First, the Conservative campaign and governing needs to be contextualised within the debate on the recognition of identity and re-distribution of wealth. Second, the “Red Wall” did not pre-exist political campaigns and respective policies but instead has been constructed and communicated to solidify a new conservative hegemony. Third, the “Red Wall” is part of a political-communicative tactic of constructing collective identities based on cultural stereotypes, location and professional occupation in line with Margaret Thatcher’s “Essex Man” and Tony Blair’s “Mondeo Man” for indicating ideological shifts and electoral trends.

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Introduction

1Soon after a Conservative gain in a much-discussed by-election in Hartlepool on 6 May 2021, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared before the TV cameras, standing next to the newly elected MP Jill Mortimer, stating that the result of the by-election in Hartlepool was a “mandate” for the Conservatives to “continue to deliver”, not just for the northeast of England but for the whole country (Johnson qtd BBC 2021). The Prime Minister continued by saying that the “public want politicians to get on focusing on their needs and priorities” and referenced some rather abstract predictions from the Bank of England concerning an imminent “economic boost” and “strong recovery”. As soon as the Prime Minister started running out of words, he re-directed the media’s attention to Brexit — a topic that is economically problematic, yet culturally iconic and, for certain sections of new and traditional Conservative voters, which signals a victory over the country’s political and cultural establishment —: “This is a place that voted Brexit and we got Brexit done and we were able to do other things thanks to that” (BBC 2021). Boris Johnson’s statement on the Hartlepool by-election encapsulated both the contradictions of the Conservatives’ approach to campaigning and governing and pointed towards a classic sociological and political debate on the recognition of identity and the redistribution of wealth. Since the general election of 2019 the contradictions concerning campaigning and governing, recognition of identity and redistribution of wealth, have been popularly understood and framed by the construction of the “Red Wall” as a collective identity and by the development of the “levelling up” agenda.

2The “Red Wall” refers to a block of constituencies coloured in red on an election map to signify Labour. The conservative pollster and strategist James Kanagasooriam (2021) coined the term to delineate a wall stretching up from the Midlands to North Wales and then across to Merseyside. Interestingly enough, and despite the way the term has been applied, Kanagasooriam did not include constituencies of the North-East as part of the “Red Wall”. However, constituencies in the North-East such as Hartlepool are now part of the “Red Wall” in all political analyses concerning the Labour party and its former strongholds. The “Red Wall” comprises 4.7 million people who approximately make up 8% of the population in England and Wales. In effect, the “Red Wall” encompasses the constituencies who voted for the Conservatives for the first time in the 2019 general election and whose trust Labour needs to regain if it has any aspirations of becoming the governing party in the next elections (which are to be held no later than December 2024). Even though the imagery of a collapsing wall has informed the journalistic and political discourse on Labour’s diminishing reach in its former heartlands (Coman 2021; Payne 2021), voting patterns and shifting ideological affiliations (Sobolewska & Ford 2021; Bale et al. 2021), and on prescribing campaign and policy strategies for Labour to win back its so-called traditional voters (Mattison 2020), the term “Red Wall” lacks a coherent definition and explanation.

3As the pollster and Labour’s current Director of Strategy, Deborah Mattison (2020) has pointed out, very few if any of the residents of the “Red Wall” are aware of the term’s analytic potency and even fewer would identify as part of it. The obvious lack of emotional and social attachment of the residents of the “Red Wall” regions to the actual term should not necessarily undermine the potency of the term to shape political and public discourse and to re-draw the political map according to sentiments and attitudes generated and framed by regional inequality, policy, and political membership.

4The emergence of the “Red Wall” as an analytic category for Labour’s diminishing power in England’s former industrial regions and as a collective identity encapsulating those who have been marginalised by a series of policies and ideological dispositions concerning EU membership, immigration, local pride and national sovereignty can be found in two different, yet similar, parallel party-political movements: the creation of UKIP, an offshoot right-wing party at the margins of the Conservatives, and the negative reaction to New Labour’s modernisation by a certain segment of Labour MPs, members and activists, which coalesced under the fringe group Blue Labour.

5David Cameron’s formulation of a modernising political and cultural agenda aimed at repositioning the Conservative party at the liberal centre ground. It did so by softening its approach to topics such as the EU, immigration, human rights, while at the same time presenting environmentalism, same sex marriage and social engagement as the new core themes of contemporary conservatism. However, his agenda eventually reached a dead end because it had to exist alongside a punishing programme of fiscal consolidation, and because it could not be supported by members and activists whose ideological outlook was more conservative. The increasing popularity of UKIP during the Cameron-led coalition government (2010-2015), and of the Brexit Party soon after the referendum (2018-2019), was based on the gradual dissatisfaction with the Conservative party’s direction for attracting new voters and silencing those who did not fit in the new coalition politics. Effectively, UKIP and later the Brexit Party expanded their electoral appeal by incorporating into the European question the issue of traditional national values, sovereignty, immigration and its impact on the welfare state and government spending (Fetzer 2018).

6Parallel to the increasing appeal of UKIP, Labour started facing its own internal opposition to the narratives and policies of globalisation and the market-based economy. Motivated by the chronic neglect of traditional working-class values, Blue Labour established itself as a fringe group of party members, trade unionists, MPs and think tankers on a mission to rediscover a sense of community that predated the Clement Atlee and Nye Bevan’s post-war social reforms. Blue Labour look for inspiration in the 19th century associations and co-operatives before they were eclipsed by the Labour party’s constitution of the Welfare State and social central planning. A “deeply conservative socialism” holding together the three pillars of “family, faith and work” needs to be re-energised not only for defeating the Conservatives but more importantly for re-orienting politics, society and culture towards the integral conservatism of the working class (Glasman 2011). For the Blue Labour thinkers and advocates, New Labour’s apparent endorsement of globalisation, immigration and of mobile labour created a sense of resentment among the less mobile, educated and ultimately among a distinctive and often neglected group of people within Britain’s multicultural constellation — the “white working class” (Rutherford 2011). Both the UKIP (and its later manifestation, the Brexit Party) and Blue Labour declared their presence as pressure groups against the apparent modernisation of the two governing parties by depoliticising the working class and suggesting a new alliance between the post-industrial working class, the vote to leave the EU, and a set of traditional national values.

7Unlike Labour, the Conservatives under the leadership of Boris Johnson positioned themselves as the “standard bearers” (Hayton 2021: 287) of the growing cultural and electoral trend against the modernisation of the two major parties. The renegotiation of Britain’s exit from the EU by Johnson, and the slogan “Get Brexit Done,” halted the Brexit Party’s momentum and integrated the Leave vote irrespective of traditional political affiliations. As Cutts et al. (2020) demonstrate, approximately ¾ of the 2016 Leave voters supported the Conservatives, enabling the latter to capture Labour constituencies in the “Red Wall”.

8While there is a growing body of literature that examines the continuous adaptability of the Conservative party to meet respective electoral challenges, as well as to social, cultural and economic anxieties via the concepts of statecraft (Bulpit 1986; Gamble 1994), and of the re-alignment of the British electorate (Eatwell & Goodwin 2019; Sobolewska & Ford 2021), there is little published research as to how the construction of a new collective identity — that of the “Red Wall” — has reinforced the hegemony of the Conservative party. This is not to suggest these accounts are wrong, but rather that they are limited because they do not consider the construction of collective identities for electoral purposes as an ideological project sustained and propagated by the image of the ideal voter. This article makes three different, yet interconnected, arguments. First, the Conservative campaign and governing need to be contextualised within the sociological and political debate on the recognition of identity and the re-distribution of wealth (Honneth 2012; Fraser & Honneth 2004; Fraser 1995). Second, while the recognition of a specific type of identity, i.e. the electoral and cultural importance of the “Red Wall” is a clear priority, the article asserts that such an identity did not pre-exist political campaigns and respective policies. On the contrary, such identities have been constructed and communicated by campaigners and policymakers for the purpose of solidifying a new conservative hegemony. Third, the term “Red Wall” is part of a political-communicative tactic of constructing collective identities based on cultural stereotypes, location and professional occupations such as Margaret Thatcher’s “Essex Man” and Tony Blair’s “Mondeo Man” that indicate ideological shifts and electoral trends.

9The article is organised as follows: the first section illustrates the empirical material of the article and highlights the theoretical and methodological merits of a political and cultural analysis informed by the work of Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser and Stuart Hall on recognition, redistribution, and Conservative hegemony. The second section focuses on the political and cultural meanings of the “Red Wall” by providing a review of statecraft, class and status in British politics. The third section elucidates the Conservative government’s attempts to define the “levelling up” agenda by focusing on the 2019 Conservative manifesto, the Hartlepool by-election in 2021, and the Prime Minister’s “levelling up” speech in the same year. The binaries of London and the North and the similarities between the North and East Germany constitute powerful rhetorical devices for acknowledging each country’s left behind and the need for state intervention, albeit within the parameters of the free market economy. The fourth section deploys the literature on recognition and redistribution as a methodological and analytic framework for the analysis of post-Brexit conservatism and the electoral and cultural relationship between the Conservatives and England’s de-industrialised regions. Drawing on Roland Barthes’ observations on the critique and the maintenance of order, the conclusion points out to the political and cultural correspondence between prosperity and deprivation, free market and state intervention as an effective strategy for the renewal of Conservatism.

1. Empirical Source Material and Methodology

10The incorporation of the “Red Wall” into the Conservative government’s communication and governing strategy requires the articulation of policies and legislation capable of addressing historic injustices towards the residents of England’s de-industrialised areas and a set of actions for creating a level playing field regarding public investment, infrastructure and access to education and the labour market. The 2019 Conservative manifesto set out a “levelling up agenda” aiming at regional investment and the re-skilling of the country’s workforce in accordance with the latest developments in technology and the labour market. After several attempts at specifying the scope and aspiration of the “levelling up” agenda (The Conservatives 2019; Boris Johnson 2021) leading to the renaming of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (The Economist 2021a), it remains a tenuous yet effective and all-encompassing slogan for criticising the country’s London-centric economy and culture. For the Secretary for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, social policy and the decentralisation of the economy should incorporate the salient issues of belonging and community and establish a reciprocal relationship between employment and local pride: “you shouldn’t have to leave the place you love to enjoy the future you deserve” (The Economist 2021a).

11The empirical source material of this article derives from: the official political campaign of the Conservatives for the Hartlepool by-election of 2021; the 2019 Conservative party manifesto; and from the Prime Minister’s “levelling up” speech on 15 July 2021. The intersection of identity, regional politics, and the economy enables the article to position and subsequently analyse the “Red Wall” and levelling up as its policy adjunct within the analytical framework of recognition and redistribution. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apparent “end of history” (Fukuyama 2019; Williams, Sullivan & Matthews 2016), the concept of recognition has played an important role in social and political analyses, especially when applied to struggles concerning gender and ethnic politics. In this instance, social theorists, politicians and campaigners deploy recognition as a conceptual means to rectify and, at times, bypass a materialist analytical framework preoccupied with labour, exploitation, and redistribution at the expense of culture and identity. Building on Hegel’s intersubjective theory of moral agency (1977), Charles Taylor (1992) and Axel Honneth (1995; 2001) formulate a theory of recognition by designating the family, civil society, and the state as the main domains in which individual selfhood can be developed. According to Taylor (1992), a major problem arises as soon as modernity removes the absolute power from tradition and rituals to shape and determine recognition. Modern individuals were supposed to form an identity and establish themselves in society by freeing themselves from the shackles of tradition and religious rituals. However, modernity’s apparent freedom contributes to a social regime of uncertainty and insecurity. While the need to be recognised remains as strong as ever, the conditions in which one is recognised have not only changed but often fail.

12The present article draws on Taylor’s and Honneth’s theoretical elaborations for analysing the need for recognition as well as the conditions in which recognition takes place. Here, the main concern is not the assault of modernity on tradition and rituals but more specifically the impact of de-industrialisation and of the market economy on working-class communities. How do working-class communities get recognised when industrial work ceases to be the central organising principle? The issue of recognition in capitalism and the way recognition is either dependent on, or independent from, the market economy has generated a debate on the relationship between recognition and redistribution of wealth. In the domain of social theory this difference is best exemplified in the exchange between Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser (2003; Thompson 2005). In her endeavour to develop a theory of social justice, Fraser (2003; 2001; 2000) rejects the perception of recognition and redistribution as opposites and argues in favour of their unification. The distance between these two concepts of social justice exemplifies for Fraser a broader phenomenon: “the widespread decoupling of cultural politics from social politics, of the politics of difference from the politics of equality” (Fraser 2001: 21). Yet, the unification attempted by Fraser does not and should not imply that the concepts will remain the same in terms of their understanding and their deployment. The contemporary emphasis on recognition over redistribution is evident in the campaigns and electoral success of parties such as the Conservatives and the Brexit Party in the UK, or other far-right parties such as the Lega in Italy, Vox in Spain, and the Rassemblement National in France. Social inequalities caused by fiscal consolidation, wage suppression, labour flexibility, and precarious living conditions are less visible compared to prominent demands for the recognition of national identity and sovereignty allegedly compromised by immigration and globalisation (Halikiopoulou & Vlandas 2020). Fraser (2000: 108) calls this process, “the problem of displacement”, while Ulrich Beck (2005:120) talks about “relegation to second place” and “concealment” of the socio-economic redistribution by the question of “cultural dominance”.

13At the crux of this exchange between Fraser and Honneth (2003) lies a fundamentally different understanding of the role of the capitalist market economy in the recognition of identity. For Honneth, recognition can be achieved within the structures of the market economy. Wages, promotions, pension schemes, and general working conditions are indicative of the ways in which one can be recognised under capitalism. For Fraser, on the other hand, capitalism is inherently unjust, and all social inequalities and misrecognition cannot be resolved within its structures.

14The “Red Wall” and the levelling up agenda complicate the debate on recognition and redistribution and test its theoretical and methodological limits. The free market is responsible for the misrecognition of working-class communities and according to the Conservative manifesto and policies, recognition can and should be achieved via the structures of the free market supervised by a state responsive to anxieties over sovereignty, immigration and lack of cultural cohesion.

2. Statecraft, Hegemony, Identity

15The enduring appeal and continuous electoral success of the Conservative party have been analysed mainly through the concept of statecraft as developed by Bulpitt (1986) and Gamble (1994), respectively. Such accounts came to prominence with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and with the development of radical policies that deviated from conservative orthodoxy, yet were received as necessary, effective, and popular. For over a decade, the political project of Thatcherism was to forge a new ideological platform that constituted a response to Britain’s economic decline and at the same time accommodated the (neo)liberal discourse of the free market with the perennial conservative themes of family, tradition, national pride, and law and order. For Bulpitt (1986), the primary issue addressed by the concept of statecraft is the communication as well as achievement of a certain degree of competence while in power. Bulpitt points out that statecraft comprises four different, yet interconnected dimensions: effective party organisation and management; a winning electoral strategy; development of hegemonic political arguments; and reputation for competent government. By using the Conservative party as a case study, Bulpitt argued that the inherent contradictions and divisiveness of Thatcherism were mitigated by the party’s statecraft. Nevertheless, such an approach to statecraft inevitably prioritises party politics and attaches the abovementioned dimensions to the professional activity of political strategists, campaigners, leaders and policy makers. Andrew Gamble’s (1994) formulation of statecraft, on the other hand, is not limited to the party machinery but rather expands to the party’s reach over state and civil society institutions. Contrary to prevailing political strategies and analyses of the time focusing on electoral gains and the corporate structuring of the party, Thatcherism developed an expanded and multifaceted conception of politics that included culture, intellectual battles, politics, and the economy. In other words, the objective of Thatcherism was to create a hegemony aimed at the transformation politics, culture, and society by assigning the role of supervisor to the party itself. Creating a durable electoral base, framing the political debate according to a conservative worldview and presenting it as common sense create the conditions for conservative statecraft to become hegemonic.

16Gamble’s approach enables us to view Conservative hegemony beyond the confines of Conservative party politics. The modernisation of the Labour party and the advent of New Labour in 1997 are often cited as primary examples of conservative hegemony. Central to the electoral appeal of New Labour from 1997 up until 2005 was the narrowing of the ideological gap between Labour and the Conservatives, and the adaptability of the former to the objectives of the latter, while appearing as more effective and competent (Labour 1997). The disavowal of a distinctive political and ideological agenda led to a reconfiguration of British politics where Labour ceased to be the representative and defender of working-class interests. New Labour’s endorsement of fiscal conservatism and free markets not only created an expansive political and ideological centre ground in which parties would compete for votes according to their managerial competence and efficiency, but, more importantly, would eradicate political partisanship and traditional bonds between party and voters.

17What remains absent from these accounts of statecraft and hegemony is the construction of collective identities in lieu of political partisanship and traditional bonds. The hegemony achieved by Thatcherism and, later, by New Labour depended on the construction of a collective identity that encapsulated voters’ anxieties and aspirations and offered a justification for governing and opposition parties to calibrate their campaigning, manifestos, and policies accordingly. The most notable and popular collective identities capturing the political spirit and policies of their time were the “Essex Man” and the “Mondeo Man”. These collective identities relied on cultural stereotypes with respect to location, professional occupation, and consumer habits. The construction of the “Essex Man” as a collective identity and a median voter indicated the great ideological and electoral shift from Labour to the Conservatives throughout the 1980s (Evans 2002). Margaret Thatcher’s policies of lower taxation, financial deregulation, and the sale of council housing led many people who had been traditional Labour voters in Essex to support the Conservatives and effectively associate themselves with the new direction of the Conservatives and the project of Thatcherism. On a different yet similar note, “Mondeo Man” came to prominence when Tony Blair in the Labour Party’s 1996 conference was trying to explain to party members why Labour was losing voters to the Conservatives and how it could gain them back. The “Mondeo Man” was a self-employed electrician from the Midlands polishing his car whom Tony Blair met while campaigning for the 1992 general election.

His dad voted Labour, he said. He used to vote Labour, too. But he’d bought his own house now. He’d set up his own business, he was doing very nicely. So I’ve become a Tory he said. He was not rich but he was doing better than he did, and as far as he was concerned, being better meant being Tory too. In that moment, he crystalised for me the basis of our failure [] His instincts were to get on in life. And he thought our instincts were to stop him. But that was never our history or purpose (Blair 1996).

18These identities not only provide an insight into the way political parties perceive the ideal voters and then deploy their anxieties and aspirations for the formulation of strategies and manifestos, more importantly, they reshape historic relations between political parties and social classes. “Essex Man” and the “Mondeo Man” designate new arenas for political contestation and new sites for social antagonisms which acknowledge the historical role of class in shaping British politics, yet point out to diverse class interests and heterogenous alliances. The association of Thatcherism with working-class patriotism and entrepreneurialism and New Labour’s adaptation of neoliberalism as a strategy for a smaller, efficient state that would not alienate either working or middle-class voters are indicative of a volatile political environment susceptible to the political and cultural shocks of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.

19From the Brexit referendum onwards, new collective identities were identified for the analysis of election results, existing and emerging social inequalities, and political and social attitudes. The most prominent group identified as an electoral barometer for the Brexit referendum and the subsequent general, European, and local elections were the “Left Behind” (Eatwell & Goodwin 2019). The “Left Behind” occupy a peculiar position within the country’s economic and cultural class structures. If class is limited to issues concerning resources, wealth and work, then the political programmes and policies would eventually be conditioned by the opposing material interests of the “haves” and the “have-nots”. If, on the other hand, class is understood outside the confines of enumerable criteria, and spills over to issues related to national identity, national values and tradition, then it can be aligned with Conservative causes and incorporated into conservative campaigning. In this case, the class position of the Left Behind is closer to Weber’s (1948) status group (stand) where the defining qualities of honour, race, ethnicity and religion are under threat by the social and cultural forces of globalisation, liberal politics and immigration. The attitudes and overall political behaviour of the “Left Behind” are effectively determined by their desire to slow down the pace of change and communicate as effectively as possible the hostility of the present and a nostalgia for the communal bonds and way of living of the past (Maronitis 2021).

20The constitution of the “Red Wall” not only refers to these people and constituencies but, more importantly, reveals the electoral potential of a collective identity that gains its prominence by exploiting the antinomies of contemporary capitalism and liberal democracy. The “Red Wall” has become the critical battleground for contemporary national politics and has also provided new, or perhaps recycled, intellectual and communicative tools for both the Conservatives and Labour. In the first instance, the “Red Wall” is a continuation of the process of gendering the work force and the ideal voter. Unlike the explicit references to male voters and workers in the collective identities of the “Essex Man” and the “Mondeo Man” respectively, the “Red Wall” implicitly refers to former industrial male workers disillusioned with the current state of the economy, society, and culture. As a result, women voters and workers are excluded from the formal process of political recognition. In the second instance, patriotism, disdain towards the so-called metropolitan elites, rejection of the orthodoxy of globalisation, free markets and free mobility of labour, and a re-appraisal of the cultural and economic importance of English towns are powerful constitutive elements for winning elections and the reinvention of the two major political parties.

21If the “Essex Man” and “Mondeo Man” were accompanied by political and economic programmes of home ownership, deregulation of labour and financial markets, and privatisation of public services, what would be the policy framework that surrounds the “Red Wall”? Prior to the introduction of the “Red Wall” in the political discourse, the most recent attempt by the right-wing think tank Onward to continue with the tradition of constructing the ideal male voter was the Workington Man (Tanner & O’Shaughnessy 2019). The working-class man who enjoys rugby league and used to vote Labour up until the 2016 referendum was quickly forgotten by commentators and political strategists because it failed to grasp a general sense of regional and generational inequality and was not accompanied by an apposite set of policies and political interventions. The Conservative government’s agenda of “levelling up” under the aegis of Boris Johnson provides a policy and intellectual framework for understanding the status of the ideal voter and the actions needed for winning their vote. Public investment and government intervention in housing, health, education, and infrastructure in tandem with an optimistic reading of the country’s post-Brexit economic and cultural potential comprise the tools for defining voters and winning elections. The ubiquitous presence of the “Red Wall” in political campaigning as well as in analyses of the realignment where the so-called traditional working-class interests are represented by the post-Brexit Conservatives (Cutts et al. 2020) have generated a series of responses focusing on the historical understanding and material conditions which shape contemporary political thinking around the status and ideological inclinations of England’s working class.

22Historian David Edgerton (2021) argues against the conventional belief that working-class people traditionally voted for Labour. For Edgerton, the “Red Wall” is nothing more than a “mythical group of working-class voters” who consistently voted Labour up until Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party and Brexit became contentious topics. The only time Labour sustained an ideological hegemony and a majority of working-class constituencies was the period between 1945 and 1970. Even though most British citizens were working-class, Labour never appealed to more than 50% of the total vote (Edgerton 2021). The historical electoral and ideological relationship between Labour and the working class does not support the narrative of whole swathes of constituencies known as the “Red Wall” consistently voting Labour regardless of national trends. Such a narrative is further reinforced by a monolithic and archaic conception of the working class. As Edgerton (2021) and others (Maronitis 2021; Ainsley 2018) note, the conception of a working class comprised of factory workers and miners deliberately ignores the reality of the contemporary labour market where professions in social care, hospitality and the gig economy indicate that the new working class is more precarious as well as more female, mobile, ethnically diverse and educated.

23Tantamount to concerns over the changing character of the working class, The Economist (2021b) reassessed the electoral importance of the “Red Wall” in electoral politics by considering home ownership and prosperity. Here the focal point is neither the gradual decline of England’s industrial heartlands nor the precarity of workers in hospitality, social care, and the gig economy, but instead on the relative prosperity of those who have been categorised as “left behind” by campaigners and researchers. While the constituencies that make up the “Red Wall” are poorer than the rest of Britain’s regions, they have some of the lowest housing costs and a greater share of home ownership. For The Economist, the realignment in politics is not so much due to the reorientation of the Conservatives towards the representation of working-class interests but to the growing prosperity of a post-industrial working class, namely the culturally left behind, for whom home ownership and low mortgage rates can be protected by the Conservatives.

24Following Stuart Hall’s (2021) theoretical and empirical elaborations on Thatcherism and on the inability of the Left to appeal to a wider electorate, a possible interpretation of the contradictions surrounding the “Red Wall” both as an identity and an electoral barometer lies in the power of political images. For Hall, such an interpretation does not necessarily signal the irrelevance of policies in elections and political debates but rather the power of images to capture the electorate’s imagination. Consequently, the purpose of the “Red Wall” is to make the electorate perfectly aware of their own limitations in changing the direction of state institutions and corporations and, at the same time, it serves as a means to political compensation, to project an image with which they can identify. The question of political imagery and more specifically of the imagery of the “Red Wall” as quintessentially male, conservative and disillusioned, is a matter of representation and ideology that involves demands for the recognition of identity and for the redistribution of wealth that is at odds with the Conservatives and empowers them at the same time.

3. Inside and Outside the “Red Wall”

25Soon after the referendum on Britain’s membership to the European Union in 2016 and the general elections of the 2017, questions were asked and doubts were raised about the ideological inclination of the Conservatives. Who are the conservative thinkers and policy makers who will define conservatism in, and for, the 21st century? On 12 June 2019, The New Statesman published a series of articles on the theme of the “closing of the conservative mind”. The common thread that runs through these articles is the blind faith in implementing the referendum result at any cost, and the inability to think beyond free market economics. Soon after, on 4 July 2019, The Economist’s lead article was dedicated to the gradual decline of conservatism. While the article acknowledged that alleged conservatives were in power like Donald Trump in the US and Boris Johnson in the UK, their popularity and governing approach depended on the abandonment of liberal and conservative values.

26Indeed, the core ideological principles of the Conservatives, such as promoting free markets and deference to the country’s institutions, have been side-lined for the sole purpose of respecting and implementing the result of the referendum (Davies 2021; Burton-Cartledge 2021). The ideological vacuum created by Brexit had to be filled by Brexit and, by association, Brexit voters had to constitute the new ideal voters, regardless of their former political affiliations and dispositions. However, this is not the first time the Conservatives had to reassess what needs to be conserved to win elections and remain in power. During the advent of Thatcherism, Stuart Hall (2021) noted that the right convinced itself and the British electorate that well-rooted notions of how the economy is regulated and society is managed must be confronted and, if necessary, discarded. For Hall, the obligatory gestures to tradition and values are a mere accompaniment to an intense process of renewal and reorientation. “In order to conserve, it must reform, in order to preserve, it must revolutionize” (Hall 2021: 125). Thatcherism did not attempt to retain the status quo during the political and economic crisis of the late 1970s; on the contrary, it used it as a platform for reshaping society in line with a new conservatism of deregulation, opportunity, and private ownership.

27Whereas Thatcherism had to confront regulation, unionised labour and state ownership of public services, post-Brexit Conservatives are facing the daunting task of confronting Thatcherism, in other words free markets, de-industrialisation, deregulation and globalisation, as the main socio-economic components for the decline of regions where Brexit voters live and work. Here, chronic problems such as regional inequality and low productivity that led to Brexit and, by association, to the crumbing of the “Red Wall” cannot be addressed by governments in strict economic terms. The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, titled Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential, acknowledges enduring problems such as “lack of opportunity” and the feeling of being “left behind” and contends that solving these problems is necessary not only because it “makes an obvious economic sense, but for the sake of simple social justice” (The Conservatives 2019: 2). The economic sense of solving such problems and the need to address social injustice without necessarily putting the blame on existing economic structures and on specific political and economic models has been captured by the government’s “levelling up” agenda. “Levelling up” and “level up” feature 11 times in a 61-page document that mostly highlights an ambiguous relationship between Brexit and public investment. The Conservative manifesto (2019) deploys the “levelling up” slogan and agenda to paint a triptych of pride, resentment, and public investment. In particular, the manifesto recognises how proud people are of the cities, towns, and villages they come from. Yet, this pride is constantly tested, the manifesto claims, by abandonment and deterioration. “Violent crime and anti-social behaviour are ignored amid a backdrop of boarded-up department stores, shops and pubs. Great towns and cities are held back” (The Conservatives 2019: 28). Consistent with the theme of decentralisation, the Conservative manifesto claims that London should not be the centre for the country’s economic growth, nor should Whitehall provide all solutions to the country’s problems. Public investment in infrastructure, skills, and health in conjunction with the formulation of an immigration policy that prioritises skills and earnings over free mobility of labour address well-rooted grievances and focus on the “people’s priorities”. As if there was any doubt as to whom the ideal and targeted voter in post-Brexit Britain is, a photograph of working men, wearing hard hats and colour splattered overalls, holding a sign made of a cut-out carton box reading “We Love Boris”, serves as a visual conclusion to a manifesto that repositions the Conservatives as the party of the unrecognised and the left-behind.

28During the campaign for the local elections and the Hartlepool by-election, the “Red Wall” and the “levelling up” agenda delineated the terms of the political debate. Who is speaking for the country’s forgotten de-industrialised regions? Will the “Red Wall” voters continue and eventually solidify their political disposition to a post-Brexit conservatism? The Conservative candidate and subsequently MP for a constituency that had been a safe Labour seat since its creation in 1974, reiterated the government’s commitment to “level up” the country, and declared that, as an MP, she wants to make sure Hartlepool becomes the centre of the “post-pandemic recovery by creating more jobs and apprenticeships and attracting extra investment to the town” (Coner-Hill 2021).

29The electoral success of the Conservatives in the “Red Wall” constituencies (House of Commons Library 2020; BBC 2021) put pressure on the government to specify the purpose and scope of its “levelling up” agenda. On 15 July 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech on his vision to “level up” the UK. The Prime Minister’s speech did not offer any specificities regarding the distinctive character of the “levelling up” agenda, but instead served as a public platform for highlighting chronic injustices, economic imbalances, and regional disparities. Drawing on the pandemic’s detrimental effects on working and living conditions and mortality, the Prime Minister claimed that “for too many people geography turns out be destiny” (Johnson 2021b). Data on life expectancy, educational attainment, and GDP indicate that the UK is one of the most unequal counties in the OECD (2020). Indeed, regional economic gaps in the UK have widened since 2000 due to uneven regional growth patterns. Regional disparities with respect to GDP per capita have increased in the UK and remain one of the highest among the 29 OECD countries. More specifically, in 2018 the GDP per capita in the North-East of England was the equivalent of 41% of the GDP per capita in Greater London (OECD 2020). Drawing on this data, the Prime Minister justified the urgent need for the implementation of the “levelling up” agenda by providing a series of comparisons between London and the North, and between East Germany and the North-East. Regarding life expectancy, the Prime Minister pointed to regional inequalities between Blackpool and Hampshire: “a man in Blackpool has an average ten years less on this planet than someone growing up in Hart in Hampshire or in Rutlands” (Johnson 2021b). The relationship between poverty, geography and higher education is another manifestation of the prevalent inequalities in the UK. Here, the comparison is between London and outside London: “if you are a child on free school meals in London, you now have more than double the chance of going to the university than a child on free school meals growing outside London”. Finally, the Prime Minister took issue in his speech with the economic performance of certain regions and compared them with East Germany prior to Germany’s reunification in 1990. “It is an astonishing fact that 31 years after German unification, the per capita GDP of the North East of our country, Yorkshire and the East Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland is now lower than in what was formerly East Germany” (Johnson 2021b).

PM Boris Johnson's 'Levelling up' speech, 15 July 2021

30But for the Prime Minister, “levelling up” is not limited to political intention and to the desire to achieve parity amongst the country’s regions; “levelling up” can only be realised with a strong decentralised economy capable of generating wealth. In effect, the Prime Minister recycled the Conservative manifesto of 2019 by announcing a programme of public investment that targets law and public order, sport and public health, education and employability skills.

4. The Political Map Creates the Territory

31The deployment of the “Red Wall” for analysing election results and Conservative gains in conjunction with the nebulous scope and aim of the “levelling up” agenda raise questions regarding the meaning of social justice as communicated by the Conservatives and understood in post-Brexit Britain. The campaign for the 2019 general elections, the 2021 Hartlepool by-election, and the Prime Minister’s “levelling up” speech signal a new political and cultural direction for the Conservatives: a party committed to redistribution and to alleviating chronic underfunding of public services. Yet, the redistribution outlined in the abovementioned texts carefully avoids the issue of social class and instead focuses on specific communities whose members feel they have no role to play in the country’s economy and culture. The “levelling up” agenda enables the Conservatives to marginalise Labour by adopting the core policies of public investment and redistribution of wealth and subsequently gain voters from the latter’s former industrial heartlands. The message to these voters is not limited to a series of economic reforms and promises, more importantly, it expands to, and it is framed by, the importance of national identity and belonging in a political system dominated by the forces of globalisation. The “levelling up” agenda, therefore, is aimed at those who are in favour of a strong state capable and willing to intervene in crucial matters such as immigration and infrastructure and want these interventions to be informed and justified by the recognition of national identity and of those who have been left behind by globalisation and the free market.

32Contrary to Taylor’s and Honneth’s theoretical elaborations on the recognition of identity, the “Red Wall” does not exist as an identity that needs to be recognised by the country’s political agents, institutions, and policymakers. In line with previous identities such as the “Essex Man” and the “Mondeo Man”, this is an identity constructed by pollsters, campaigners, and policymakers. The contextualisation of the “Red Wall” and the “levelling up” agenda in the recognition-redistribution debate demonstrates that the recognition of the de-industrialised communities corresponds to moral sentiments and to an economic environment shaped by the expansion of higher education, mobility of labour, and the knowledge economy. However, the unconvincing and underdeveloped agenda of “levelling up” the country’s regions points to two distinctive, yet interconnected, issues. First, it reinforces Fraser’s (2000) and Beck’s (2005) argument that redistribution of wealth is relegated to second place and is being displaced by the growing concern of recognising an identity in a moment of political and economic crisis. Second, the construction of the identity of the “Red Wall” is a means to reinforce the new dividing lines delineated by the Brexit referendum and to redraw England’s political map. The predominance of the “Red Wall” in election analyses and campaigns draws a political map where there is an economic, political and cultural polarisation between the North and London, between those who wanted Brexit done and those who did not want Brexit done. The construction of the “Red Wall” identity and its subsequent recognition purposefully and systematically ignores inequalities within the left behind regions and within London. In a political strategy that echoes Jean Baudrillard’s aphorism of “the map that precedes the territory” (1988: 166), the recognition of the “Red Wall” in political communication and in public investment consolidates the right-wing vote under the banner of national pride, state intervention and social conservatism. The electoral map of the 2019 general elections, and 2021 local elections determines the political character and ideological disposition of certain regions and of the country as a whole.

33The analytical framework of recognition and redistribution reaches its limits as soon as the construction of the “Red Wall” retains an ambiguity over the role of the market in “levelling up” the country’s regions. From the Conservative manifesto of 2019 to the Prime Minister’s speech on “levelling up” in 2021 a great contradiction looms large: the market is simultaneously responsible for the neglect and destitution of England’s regions in the North and in the Midlands, and the solution to their recognition and “levelling up.” The market provides the logic as well as the means for the redistribution of wealth and resources. Within the communicative and policy framework of the “Red Wall” and the “levelling up” agenda, the Conservatives aspire to widen access to the labour market by reskilling and re-educating people according to technological trends and the demands of employers. At the same time, the labour market becomes the most important medium for recognising one’s identity and worth in terms of access, participation, employment status and renumeration.

34Following Stuart Hall’s (2021) theoretical elaborations on culture, ideology and the electoral success of the right, the prevalence of the “Red Wall” and the ambiguity of the “levelling up” agenda can be examined not in terms of policies but of images. At this point, it should be noted that policies have the potential to capture and shape people’s political imagination, but their reach is limited. For Hall, policies need to be constructed into an image with which voters can identify. This is not necessarily an indication of an irrational turn in politics, but rather an acknowledgment of the limited input people have in the actions and direction of an elected government. To paraphrase Guy Debord (2002: 5), the “Red Wall” is not a collection of images depicting an imagined glorious working-class past or the current state of marginalisation and under-investment taking place in Labour’s former strongholds, rather, it becomes a social relationship amongst voters, classes, and regions mediated by such images. Despite its apparent geographical specificity, the “Red Wall” neither consists of a single class nor ethnic group. The diversity of the “Red Wall” finds its unity in the Conservative’s national nostalgia and in the construction of an image of a group of people with waning status in politics, the economy and society who nevertheless constitute the authentic voice of the nation. To that effect, the repositioning of the Conservatives as the party of redistribution and of the forgotten, misrecognised regions depends on a symbolic majority of voters that includes all those who identify with a strong interventionist state whose political and administrative direction endorses the competitive labour market and at the same time prioritises national identity, local pride and rootedness.

Conclusion: Operation Conservatism

35This article has put forward a threefold argument. First, the Conservative campaign and governing needs to be contextualised within and analysed by the sociological and political debate on recognition of identity and redistribution of wealth. Second, the “Red Wall” is the continuation of a recent political and communicative tactic of constructing collective identities such as the “Essex Man” and the “Mondeo Man”, based on cultural stereotypes, location and occupation for indicating ideological shifts and electoral trends. Third, while there is a clear priority of recognising the “Red Wall” as the country’s hard-working left-behind regions, the article argues that such an identity does not pre-exist campaigns and respective policies. On the contrary, it is constructed and communicated by campaigners and policymakers for the purpose of solidifying a new Conservative hegemony.

36This article has demonstrated that the construction of the “Red Wall” as a collective identity and the development of the “levelling up” agenda as the former’s policy adjunct are the product of a certain critique of capitalism: a critique of the globalised economy that disregards borders, belonging, while favouring those living and working in metropolises like London. However, such a critique is not aimed at the rejection of capitalism and the market economy but at their restoration and reinforcement via the communicative power of the moral values of fairness, hard work, pride, and equal opportunity. The way a critique of capitalism could be deployed for expanding the labour market, enhance competition and maximise profits indicates that capitalism and its critiques are not necessarily antithetical to each other, but often complementary. The critique of capitalism and the recognition of the “Red Wall” through the labour market is reminiscent of the way the political, economic, and cultural order can maintain its control by being self-critical regarding minor issues and marginalising major ones. For Roland Barthes (1979: 41), in his essay Operation Margarine, this “paradoxical but incontrovertible” means of exalting the established order follows a particular pattern:

Take the established value you want to restore or develop, and first lavishly display its pettiness, the injustices which it produces, the vexations to which it gives rise, and plunge it into its natural imperfections; then at the last moment save it in spite of or rather by the heavy curse of its blemishes (Barthes 1979: 41)

37Officially named to describe a geographical cluster of people living in the Midlands and the North of England who used to be traditional Labour voters and no longer perceive the Conservatives as toxic, the “Red Wall” defines England’s economic, political and cultural order inside and outside its confines. In the name of hard work, local pride and belonging, the “Red Wall” encapsulates the people who have been misrecognised by global capitalism, the knowledge economy and ultimately by the Labour party as their former parliamentary representative. Outside the “Red Wall”, an artificial world of prosperity, opportunity and public investment has to be levelled with the country’s left-behind and misrecognised regions through a process that neither entails redistribution of wealth through taxes nor challenges the existing structures of inequality.

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References

Electronic reference

Kostas Maronitis, The People’s Priorities: Recognition, Redistribution and Conservative Hegemony Angles [Online], 14 | 2022, Online since 01 May 2022, connection on 11 August 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/angles/5588; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/angles.5588

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About the author

Kostas Maronitis

Kostas Maronitis is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Leeds Trinity University. His research interests focus on the political theory and policies of immigration, labour and European integration. Kostas Maronitis is the author of book Postnantionalism and the Challenges to European Integration in Greece: The Transformative Power of Immigration (2017) published by Palgrave McMillan. His latest book (with Denny Pencheva), titled Robots and Immigrants, will be published by Bristol University Press in September 2022. Contact: k.maronitis [at] leedstrinity.ac.uk

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