This essay, on the debate about “Red Wall” seats in England, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on India, Argentina and the potency of mass mobilisation.) It was published on 3 January 2021, under the headline “It’s too easy to lapse into stereotypes when we talk about ‘red wall’ seats”.

“What will the ‘Red Wall’ think?” As Boris Johnson pivots from Covid-19 and Brexit towards his “levelling up” agenda, that is likely to be a key question in 2021.

Already, on issues from Brexit to Black Lives Matter, from inequality to immigration, both Labour and the Tories make pronouncements with half an eye on the response in Red Wall constituencies. This focus, though, is both to misunderstand the red wall and to misjudge the working class.

The Red Wall comprises a diverse set of constituencies, in which communities range from the highly affluent to the severely deprived. Many are traditional marginals in which, as historian and psephologist Lewis Baston observed after the 2019 election, “the anomaly… was less the Conservative win this time and, rather, more the failure to switch to the Tories in 2010 and 2015 as they had done on most previous occasions when there had been a change of government.”

The term “Red Wall” was coined by analyst James Kanagasooriam to describe a set of constituencies that demographically, in his view, should have been Conservative, but which had consistently voted Labour, largely for historical and cultural reasons. Such constituencies are almost the opposite of what most people take the Red Wall to be: not traditional Labour seats that suddenly became blue in 2019 but marginal seats that surprisingly had not swung to the Tories before.

Then there are those constituencies more like traditional Labour strongholds, especially communities once defined by coal or steel, such as Workington or Mansfield. Here, certainly, the problems that Labour faces have been laid bare as many voters abandoned the party for Boris Johnson’s Tories. “I look back and realise they’ve done nothing for us,” a former miner and Labour councillor from Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire told the Guardian’s Alison Benjamin recently. “For too many politicians, it’s the career that’s important to them, not the people they represent. We seem to be forgotten.”

In much of the discussion, the Red Wall is deployed less as a demographic description than as a cypher for a certain set of values that working-class people supposedly hold, a social conservatism about issues such as immigration, crime, welfare and patriotism. The reality is, as I have suggested before, more complex, with the conservatism being overplayed and differences within the working class underestimated.

However, the Red Wall phenomenon has made many on the left wary of appearing too socially liberal. The economist Simon Wren-Lewis recently argued that “while Labour should argue for social liberalism while in government, to do so in opposition would seem to be a recipe for worthy failure”. To avoid Tory traps, it has no choice but “to appease the red wall voter”.

It’s a powerful argument and one accepted by many on the left. Yet it’s precisely the “say one thing in opposition, do something else in power” approach that has made so many people ever-more cynical about politics. Moreover, accepting the right’s framing of what is politically possible is to entrench conservative arguments on issues such as immigration, making it even more difficult to challenge the myths, therefore consolidating a particular narrative. That, too, is a trap to avoid.

Working-class disillusionment with Labour will not be undone by espousing a pretend social conservatism in the hope of winning power. Hostility to social liberalism among sections of working-class voters is, as author Lynsey Hanley observes, the product of decades of neglect. It is a product, also, of a social conversation that too often pits the needs of the working class against those of minorities and of a left that too often dismisses working-class concerns as an expression of racism or xenophobia.

There is nothing inherently “conservative” in talking about families or communities, only in the way one talks about these issues. The problem lies in imagining that to rebuild social bonds one has to be illiberal about immigration or benefits or gay rights, or that to espouse liberal policies on these issues one has to ignore working-class grievances and needs. It is a belief rooted in the unstitching of the relationship between the social and the liberal that once defined the left.

It’s another trap to avoid: a debate that transforms a discussion about material change into one about social values whose terms are defined by conservatives. Politics is about listening to people’s needs and desires and shaping policies so as to build the largest coalition of support. It is also about standing on a set of principles and trying to win people over. We should not abandon the latter in order to achieve the former. Otherwise we may end up with neither principles nor power.

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