How do ‘Blue Wall’ voters rate the Tories one year on?

By Alex Forsyth and Alice Thompson

BBC News


image copyrightGetty Images

image captionLast year Redcar elected its first Conservative MP since the constituency was created in the 1970s.

Last October, MPs in a packed parliamentary chamber voted for a general election, agreeing to let the country decide its own fate after months of failed wrangling on Brexit.

A year later, we returned to two constituencies in north-east England to see how voters feel about the choice they made.

At 5am, in the final wintery days of the election campaign, Boris Johnson paid a visit to Grimsby Fish Market.

Dressed in white overalls, he shook hands with the fish merchants on the floor, making bold pledges about the benefits for their industry of leaving the EU.

Four days later, the constituency of Great Grimsby turned from red to blue, as the Conservatives ousted Labour for the first time in 74 years.

It was one of a swathe of seats across the Midlands and northern England that seemed persuaded by promises of a bright post-Brexit future, and generous investment in communities that often felt overlooked.

But Boris Johnson and his government could never have predicted what was coming down the line.

A global pandemic knocked their plans off course, forcing them to confront a public health crisis with serious economic consequences.

Patrick Salmon, who owns fish smoking company Alfred Enderby in Grimsby docks, met the prime minister on the fish market floor last year.

image captionBrexit and its consequences have taken a “backseat” as the pandemic unfolded

Looking back, he said Mr Johnson had “had the toughest year possible” trying to tackle coronavirus, and that therefore he was “going to get it wrong”.

“But I defy anybody to get what we’ve just been through right,” he added.

For Patrick, Brexit – and the type of deal the UK makes with the EU on fishing – is still critical, but he acknowledged the issue had taken a “backseat” over the last year due to the Covid crisis.

He urged people to be optimistic about the prospects of a good deal, saying “we all need to be very, very positive. We’ve got no choice… So let’s get behind it and let’s talk it up.”

Up the road from Patrick’s smokers, overlooking the waters of Alexandra Dock, we met up with Mike Woods.

Mike, who’s chairman of the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association, also met the prime minister at the fish market last December.

He says he was impressed by what he described as Mr Johnson’s “passion” for the industry, and he still backs him now.

“I seriously still have belief in Boris Johnson,” he said. “I do believe that Boris is the right man for the job. And I can’t look at the present moment in time and think: who’s going to replace him?”

But Mike is nervous about the effect of the crisis on the country’s economy. He wants to see the government do more to balance the competing demands of both public health and public finances.

“I think we need to protect the elderly, and protect the vulnerable, but we also have to balance. We’re getting into so much debt as a nation. Who’s going to pay for it?”

Not far away, Freeman Street Market has sat in the centre of Grimsby for more than 140 years.

A busy community hub, made up of independent craft fairs, food stalls, and sweet shops, we joined some of the traders as they made their last sales of the afternoon.

Nicola Maasdam, who runs a gift shop, is broadly reassured by the government’s efforts.

“I think [Johnson] has done the best with what is a completely unprecedented situation. We’ve never been in a situation like that in living history.

“And what could they do? I think they’ve taken the advice that they could take, and have done a pretty good job. There’s always things that they could do better.”

And if Labour were in charge instead, she doesn’t think they would have handled the situation any differently. “They’ve still got the same advice that they’ve been given. They wouldn’t have been given any different advice. And I don’t think they could have done a better job personally.”

But that’s by no means a universal view.

From his pie shop “Pie-o-neers”, Stuart Hudson said he thinks of the prime minister as a “bit of a clown”.

“I don’t agree with some of his views and what he goes for. I think the whole way everything’s been dealt with has just been backwards altogether.”

image captionThe Freeman Street Market has served customers for over 140 years

Josie Moon, who runs a community arts project, is worried and angry.

“This is a storm. We are all in it together. But some of us are on yachts, and some of us are on inflatable dinghies, and I think it’s about time that the people in this country wake up and say, you know what, this is terrible.

“This doesn’t have to be like that. In terms of the arts, I worry. I’ve got so many friends who are artists, so many friends who are musicians, and I weep for what is happening to them, and how they’re being treated with utter disdain and contempt and like their lives don’t matter.”

In focus: Great Grimsby and Redcar

  • Formerly represented by Labour’s Melanie Onn, Great Grimsby elected a Conservative MP, Lia Nici, for the first time since the 1935 election
  • Average full-time weekly pay in the area is £470, versus a UK average of £580. It ranks as the 34rd most deprived of England’s 533 constituencies
  • Aside from briefly being held by the Lib Dems, Redcar had been held by Labour since the constituency was created in 1974
  • It is now represented by Tory MP Jacob Young, who ousted incumbent Anna Turley, who had held the seat since 2015
  • Ranking 74 out of 533 for deprivation, Redcar has weekly average full-time wages of £480 – £100 below the UK average

But has anybody here actually changed their view on the Conservative Party over the last year?

Despite concerns from some about how the government has enforced restrictions and handed out economic help, it seems that those who decided to back Mr Johnson last year are still content to do so.

And those who didn’t? They’re still not impressed by a man they didn’t vote for in the first place.

image captionThe Humber Bridge is the UK’s longest single-span suspension bridge

A few hours’ drive along the North East coast, the shadow of the steelworks stretches over Redcar’s wide sands.

The steel industry once powered the town, but now the site is mostly empty, awaiting longed-for regeneration.

When we last visited Redcar in February, we met people who’d voted Conservative for the first time and were cautiously hopeful that what some saw as a gamble might pay off.

Walking on the beach with his wife Irene, Michael Shepherd isn’t so sure now.

“I voted Tory last time”, he said. “I’ve been a Labour man all my life. I think we all got carried away on a wave of enthusiasm for him [Johnson] really.

“We never seem to see him now. He’s taken a retreat stance. It’s all the time other people coming out to talk for him. So a lot of confidence has gone really.”

Redcar’s town centre is dotted with empty shops – a sign of the struggle so many high streets face.

There we met Stephen Gent, who was passing through on a trip from County Durham. For him, the past year has marked a shift in the political tone of the country.

“If we think back to the caterwauling in the Houses of Parliament just before Christmas last year, we are certainly in a better situation,” he said.

“From that point of view, I think Covid has brought the country together more, and there is less division between people than there was.”

Despite the pandemic exacerbating talk of a North-South divide, he hasn’t lost hope that the region will eventually see some of the investment it’s been promised.

“We’re not really seeing any major changes or impacts yet,” he said. “So it’s a matter of waiting and seeing for me. I’m always hopeful.”

As evening fell, we watched Redcar Town ladies football club train beneath the floodlights of a well-kept pitch.

image captionSport has proved a lifeline for many living though the Covid restrictions

In a region that feels hard-hit by this pandemic, sport has been essential for many, including Middlesbrough fan Michelle Coleman.

She has some sympathy about the challenge the pandemic has presented, despite misgivings about aspects of the government’s approach.

“What I would say is whoever was running the country during this pandemic had an impossible task on their hands. No one could keep the whole country happy,” she said.

“A lot of the affected areas are in the north, not just the North East, but there’s Manchester and Liverpool that have obviously been hit hard.

“I think we just continuously feel that up in the north, we just don’t matter. I don’t feel like we get as much investment as obviously down south. But I think one thing we do have is the community spirit.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by head groundsman Graham Rose.

“You can see Redcar town centre, you know, you can see the shops shutting down left, right and centre. And it’s so difficult for them to make ends meet at the moment and Covid is the big thing.

“It’s made a mess of everything really. But as positive human beings, we will battle through and we’ll get on with it.”

There is understanding that the pandemic has knocked the government’s priorities off course; paradoxically, it may have bought Boris Johnson some time before he’s expected to deliver on his election promises.

But this unexpected, uncertain year has undoubtedly dented confidence in some quarters.

The true political consequences may depend on how the government handles whatever comes next.

Lohit Soundarajan

Founder , Editor Tech Guy #Voxguy

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