‘Blue Wall’ paying the price of relative decline in the 2010s, alongside long-lasting North-South divide

The ‘Blue Wall’ constituencies that switched from Labour to the Conservatives in the last election experienced a tough 2010s in terms of their jobs, pay and house prices, according to new research published today (Wednesday) by the Resolution Foundation.

Painting the towns blue explores the demographics and living standards of the 50 seats across Wales, the Midlands and the North that turned Conservative in the last election.

The report finds that the stereotype of Blue Wall seats being very poor, old, and with young people leaving for big cities, is wide of the mark. It highlights a number of ways in which Blue Wall constituencies differ from these assumptions, including:

  • Poor, but not the poorest. Blue Wall constituencies are poorer than traditional Conservative seats – typical incomes are £23,400 and £25,500­ respectively – in part because of the North-South divide. However, they are not the poorest parts of the country. Within their own regions, Blue Wall seats are better off than Labour seats, where typical incomes are just £22,400.
  • Middle-aged. Far from being very old, the average age in Blue Wall seats is 41, just above the British average of 40.3. They are the new swing seats exactly because they are middle-aged, with the average age in other Conservative seats 1.3 years older, and Labour seats 3.5 years younger.
  • Not leaving town. Rather than seeing large exoduses, young people have been far less likely to leave Blue Wall seats than Labour or other Conservative seats (their emigration rate is a third lower). People are also far less likely to move into Blue Wall areas from other parts of Britain, or from abroad.
  • Live local, work local. Blue Wall residents do not all commute to nearby cities. They are much less likely to leave the local area for work than in other Conservative or Labour seats, and have the shortest commutes, at 24 minutes. Five-in-six residents drive to work, and only 2 per cent commute by train, less than half the rate in any other area.

Painting the towns blue notes that, while Blue Wall seats share many of the wider challenges resulting from the depth of Britain’s North-South divide, a key feature of these constituencies has been a relative economic decline over the past decade. This includes:

  • A tighter pay squeeze. Real weekly pay in Blue Wall constituencies is down by 2.1 per cent since 2010, compared to a 1.5 per cent fall across Britain as a whole. They have fared particularly badly relative to other Conservative and Labour seats in the Midlands and North (which have experienced real pay falls of 0.7 and 1 per cent respectively).
  • Weak jobs growth. Overall employment in Blue Wall seats has increased by just 4 percentage points since 2010, compared to a 5.3 percentage point increase across Britain. These seats have also seen weak jobs growth in higher-paying sectors.
  • Sluggish house price rises. House prices have grown by just 2 per cent a year since 2010 – half the growth rate of other Conservative and Labour seats.

The Foundation says that with the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda motivated in part by its new electoral base, it is important for politicians and policy makers to better understand Blue Wall economies.

It warns, however, that the government’s agenda to help these seats may have to run uphill because those in the Blue Wall will be more likely to be losers, and less likely to be winners, from the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) than households across the country as a whole

The report finds that young part-time working single parents claiming UC in Blue Wall seats are set to lose more than those in other Conservative seats (£282 vs £170), while dual earners claiming UC in Blue Wall seats are set to gain less (£534 vs. £2,761).

Charlie McCurdy, Researcher at the Resolution Foundation, said:

“The ‘Blue Wall’ constituencies across Wales, the Midlands and the North have already made a big political impact, deciding the result of the last General Election. But their importance is also in how they may shape public policy in the years ahead.

“The danger is that their newfound fame has been accompanied by misleading stereotypes, which risk wrong-footing policy makers in their efforts to ‘level up’ their economic prospects. Blue Wall seats are far poorer than traditional Conservative seats, but they are not the oldest or poorest parts of Britain. In fact, people living in these areas are generally middle-aged, and better off than those living in Labour seats in the same regions.

“Blue Wall constituencies have been ‘left behind’ economically over the past decade. This has left local residents with smaller pay packets, fewer jobs and less wealth compared to the rest of the country. Tackling this recent relative decline alongside the wider longer-lasting impact of the North-South divide should lie at the heart of the government’s levelling up agenda.”