UK polling station sign, wonky against a green hedge

Food standards are key issue for ‘red wall’ swing voters

Erosion of British standards seen as betrayal by Brexiteers in parts of northern England.
20 January 2021 , Katie Coyne

Strong food standards ensuring that cheap food is also safe food is all the more important to families struggling to feed themselves due to COVID-19, according to traditional northern English Labour voters that switched sides in the 2019 election.

Research from campaign group Unchecked UK and consultancy KSBR Brand Futures found these voters were in favour of well enforced rules and regulations across all areas, and particularly across food standards.

This swing group in the ‘red wall’ areas that helped secure the Conservatives an 80-seat majority, felt the UK should under no circumstances compromise food standards to secure trade deals. In fact, the research found this group viewed downgrading standards in this area as a ‘betrayal’.

A strong majority of participants also supported Brexit in 2016, and voted to leave because they thought it would give Britain greater freedom to put the ‘great’ in Britain again, and that leaving the EU would benefit British farmers and food producers. So they are sceptical about opening up the British market to foreign agribusinesses.

The research found these voters to be left-leaning on economic issues but conservative on cultural and social issues, which may go some way to explain the massive swing to the right, in which Labour lost 54 seats to the Conservatives.

Emma Rose, co-author of the report, said in its conclusion: “We found nothing to suggest that red wall swing voters want to see lower standards post-Brexit. Indeed, the reverse is true, these voters opted to take back control because they believe that the freedom to make our own laws will enable us to put the ‘great’ back in Great Britain.

“Brexit, for this cohort, can be read as a vote for optimising and strengthening the standards which underpin what these voters love about Britain. In contrast to the direction of travel advocated by some, our red wall swing voters would see an erosion of what they perceive to be innately high British standards as a betrayal of their vote for Brexit.”

A view from the ‘Red Wall’: Swing voters’ attitudes to regulation and food standards, which was carried out in June and September 2020, is based on in-depth interviews with 52 voters, including focus groups in the constituencies of Burnley, Heywood & Middleton, North West Durham, West Bromwich East and Wrexham.

On handling the pandemic, this group tended to give Prime Minister Boris Johnson the ‘benefit of the doubt’ due to the unprecedented situation and because they felt Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would not have done any better.

What participants said (names changed)

Betty, 55, Wrexham: “If you’ve got children or you work full-time and you’re just flying into the shop to get something to take home you don’t want to have to read all the labels.”

Andy, 37, Heywood & Middleton: “Brexit was sold by key members of this government as taking back control, and it seems we’re not taking back control, we’re just passing it to other more worrying countries – American and Chinese multinationals that are going to be lowering standards, and undermining British industry.”

Tony, 56, Burnley: “…Having strong regulations is a bit like having a strong immune system, it’s absolutely crucial to the nation’s health and wellbeing that need maintaining and I think we need to like put our stamp on things again and start grabbing, taking back control.”

Adam, 38, West Bromwich East: “I think we need to have rules there, to protect our families, and individuals, so we look after each other. We shouldn’t obviously break any rules or regulations. That’s what the law is there for, to look after us.”

Betty, 55, Wrexham: “They need to deliver what they promised, we don’t need to go backwards, because our food safety and our hygiene standards and everything like that, it’s good and it works, why would we want to go backwards?”

Terry, 62, Heywood & Middleton: “Still the best cars in the world are the Rolls Royce and the Bentley, our cotton industry used to be one of the best in the world. We need it back like that, we need them standards and to keep them standards, and to up them standards, so that we are the best in the world.”

Sue, 67, Burnley: “I just think that we should be, if they want to trade with us, their standards should be coming to ours, it should be acceptable to us.”

Alice, 59, Burnley: “So, the food producers cutting corners wherever they can which is what happened with the horse meat thing. You know they’re putting horse meat in with the beef, cutting corners so that they could make more profit and it stems from there.”

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