The term ‘red bridge’ was first used by Lisa Nandy, who ran to be leader of the Labour Party earlier this year and is now shadow foreign secretary. When using this term, she was referring to the need for Labour to reconnect with their Brexit-supporting voters that they lost in the Midlands and the North in the 2019 election, while holding on to young and ethnic minority voters in London and other big cities. Nandy herself embodies this ‘red bridge’, as she is the MP for Wigan and from the North of England, but was also a local councillor in Hammersmith.
The pandemic as a bridge-builder?
But the question is, is it still possible for Labour to hold together what used to be their core vote? I would suggest that it is not impossible. Brent is a diverse borough in London that voted heavily for Remain, while Barrow-in-Furness is a largely white, post-industrial town in the north of England that voted strongly to Leave. But there are things that unite them, and nothing has exposed this more brutally than the ongoing pandemic. Brent has been a hotspot, as has Barrow-in-Furness. Both places have issues with overcrowded housing, high rates of preexisting health conditions, and a greater proportion of people in jobs that cannot be done from home, thereby making them more exposed to the disease.
So can Labour, now under the leadership of Keir Starmer, use this to build a narrative to unite Brent and Barrow-in-Furness? Using the pandemic to improve Labour’s standing with the electorate is tricky for Starmer. Most voters want to see the two main parties cooperating at a time of national crisis, and may not appreciate any obvious attempts at political point scoring.
That being said, there is a reasonable, evidence-based case that Starmer can make against the government on its handling of the coronavirus to convince voters. Whether it is a nurse or a hospital porter living in Brent, or someone at the BAE shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, they could have been better protected if only the government had been stronger on testing and on the distribution of PPE.
To some extent, Starmer has already started challenging the government on these failings. He memorably stated that the government had been ‘slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment’. Some on the Left of the Labour party have criticised the new leader for not taking a more partisan approach. But understandably, Keir Starmer wants to strike the right balance between appearing constructive and drawing the public’s attention to some of the government’s failings.
Starmer for PM?
The problem for Labour is that they are still behind in the polls. But this is unlikely to be because Starmer has not done enough to convince different groups of voters of the government’s mishandling of Covid-19. Polls suggest that a majority of voters now disapprove of the government’s handling of the crisis, and Keir Starmer is now the preferred choice of prime minister.
Labour’s problem is that, while coronavirus has shown that a seat like Brent and a seat like Barrow-in-Furness have much in common, there is still a great deal that drives them apart. In recent months, the issue of Brexit has understandably taken a backseat (Keir Starmer has barely mentioned it at all since becoming leader), but it is still a major obstacle to building the red bridge and may become more of an issue in the next few months if the UK leaves without a deal. Immigration is another subject which divides Labour’s heartlands in London and its former heartlands in the north of England. This may be exacerbated by the increase in the numbers of migrants crossing the channel in recent weeks and months.
A red bridge isn’t a guarantee
Even if Labour did manage to reconstruct this ‘red bridge’, it is still far from certain that they would form the next government. Labour’s so called ‘heartlands’ used to include much of Scotland, where the SNP is now almost completely in control. Labour’s fortunes in the next few years will depend heavily on how they handle the independence question, especially given that more than a third of Scottish Labour voters support independence. They will also need to find a way of appealing to some of the middle and lower-middle class ‘middle England’ voters in the South that Blair managed to persuade in 1997, and who are still very suspicious of the party.
Creating Lisa Nandy’s ‘red bridge’ is a daunting task for Labour, but a necessary one if they are to stand a chance of winning the next election. However, while necessary, it is not, on its own, sufficient. Though Labour have a capable new leader in Keir Starmer, and are probably a bit more cheerful than they were back in December, they should not start breaking out the champagne just yet. With the winter coming and Covid-19 infections on the rise, voters will be both vulnerable and angry — a combination that could be used to one’s advantage by either party, if one knows how.