The ‘Blue Wall’ analogy refers to prosperous, Remain-leaning seats, mainly in the South of England. Since the Tories embraced Brexit and are now focused on holding onto the gains made in the Red Wall, with their ‘levelling up’ agenda, it is thought that they could be at risk of losing these seats. Tory-held seats that fall into this category include Chesham and Amersham and Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton.

But the idea of a clear-cut Blue/Red divide is deeply misleading since it wrongly assumes that the South is made up of wealthy Remainers. It is not just the horribly oppressed stockbrokers of Surrey and Buckinghamshire that the Tories need to worry about. Large swathes of the South are just as deprived as their Red Wall compatriots.


Southern Poverty

The South experiences a different kind of poverty which is being overlooked by the two main parties.
Let’s start with the self-employed, a group that has been hit hard by Covid and lockdown. During the Thatcher era, the term ‘Essex man’ was used to describe a certain type of working-class voter (usually self-employed) who voted Conservative.

There is a reason that these kinds of voters were associated with Essex. After World War Two, working-class families were encouraged to leave inner London (which had been badly bombed during the Blitz), and move to the newly-built council houses in the suburbs and the new towns around London, such as Harlow in Essex. With the decline of manufacturing in the 1980s, this group increasingly turned to self-employment. Margaret Thatcher’s policies of low taxation and right-to-buy are thought to have encouraged many traditional Labour voters in Essex to vote Tory.

According to the ONS, 60 per cent of self-employed people saw their income fall in April 2020. And more than one-third reported the closure of their workplaces. As a result, many self-employed people have been struggling with their mental health.

Moreover, the Treasury’s initial support package excluded those who became self-employed since the end of the 2018-19 tax year, which meant that thousands of people did not get the support they needed at a critical time.
Perhaps, the Tories think they can take these voters for granted.

This brings us to another Tory-voting demographic in the South; those living in rural areas. James Green, director of the Newlyn Art Gallery has said: ‘poverty looks different in Cornwall than it does in an urban situation. People who come here eat in the nice restaurants, they rent the pretty cottages … they misunderstand the challenges Cornwall faces’.

Despite Cornwall’s thriving tourist industry, it is still considered to be one of the poorest regions in northern Europe. Cornwall faces similar challenges to those found in ex-industrial towns. For instance, it has seen a growth in zero-hour contracts and the Cornish fishing industry has been struggling post-Brexit.

Places like Cornwall face challenges that are specifically linked with rurality. For example, 44 per cent of those living in rural areas live more than 4km from a GP. And, given the state of public transport in many rural areas, anyone who does not own a car is in trouble. Even if you do, it is not always straightforward; households in rural areas with a car spent £139 a week on transport compared with £79 in urban areas. Isolation and secludedness is something that draws many people to the countryside, but it is also one of the main drivers of poverty in places like Cornwall. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have shown any interest in finding solutions to poverty in rural areas.

Urban areas of course have their own set of problems to deal with. The North/South dichotomy is particularly problematic when you consider that the event most symbolic of inequality in twenty-first-century Britain, the Grenfell Tower disaster, happened in London because the building was covered in flammable cladding. The cladding crisis has affected people in every part of the UK, but the steep house prices in London mean that increasingly people have started to move to the commuter belt areas. For those that live in the capital, the choice is often potentially unsafe council accommodation. It is an undeniable fact that the plight of London’s poor is often inextricably linked to the excessive wealth of other Londoners. The wealthiest homeowners price poorer people out of good-quality housing.

And let’s not forget that that most of those who died in Grenfell were ethnic minorities, which means structural racism cannot be ruled out as a factor. But given that most minorities still don’t vote Conservative, the Tories probably think they can afford to alienate these voters.

Who Will Help the South?

Even in the leafier parts of the South, there are pockets of deprivation — something highlighted recently by Wycombe MP, Steve Baker.

Poverty in the South of England is a complex and nuanced picture. Sadly, I don’t see either Johnson or Starmer coming up with policies that might address the issue anytime soon. Labour has been rather sentimental about their ‘lost heartlands’. They do not feel their party is the same without ex-miners and former cotton mill workers, which means Labour is more concerned with winning back the Red Wall. Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ treatment of the self-employed during the pandemic, their dismissal of the concerns of fisherman (and other industries) in relation to Brexit, and their plans to scrap the £20 uplift to Universal Credit all suggest that they believe these people have nowhere else to go. Poor southerners are stuck with a Tory Party that takes them for granted, and a Labour Party that is not interested.

But voters don’t like being taken for granted (look at what happened in Scotland and the Red Wall). If leading politicians continue to ignore the complex and nuanced picture of poverty in the South, they could provide an opportunity for the Greens, or ammunition for Nigel Farage and even the Cornish nationalists.