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U.K. election: How Boris Johnson's Conservatives won Labour's 'red wall' heartlands

"I've always voted Labour before but I’m pleased we have a Conservative member of Parliament because now we can get on with Brexit," one local said.
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BOLSOVER, England — Standing outside his local pub in this seemingly forgotten English town, John Puntis is discussing his family history. It's a story that goes some way to explain the earthquake that just reshaped the political landscape across the United Kingdom.

On Friday, the country awoke to Prime Minister Boris Johnson winning a resounding victory in the nationwide general election. His Conservative Party flipped dozens of seats that for decades had been considered untouchable bastions of the left-wing Labour Party.

That shift appears partly due to people like Puntis. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was once a diehard Labour-voting miner before the local coal mines closed in the 1980s.

Image: John Puntis, 61, former miner in Bolsover, Derbyshire, the day after the general election on Dec. 12, 2019.
John Puntis, a lifelong Labour voter, explains why he switched to the Conservatives. Alex Smith / NBC News

This week he broke with family tradition and for the first time voted against Labour, a party once synonymous with working-class community spirit.

Switches like this helped his hometown of Bolsover stun the nation and elect its first Conservative Party lawmaker since the constituency was created in 1950. This trend repeated as the Conservatives proceeded to smash through Labour's "red wall" of stronghold working-class seats that once stretched from coast to coast.

"It's groundbreaking," Puntis, 61, said cheerfully, dressed in a red jacket on this chilly, grey morning around three hours' drive north of London. Speaking with a matter-of-fact but friendly manner about the election the night before, he explained, "I've always voted Labour before, but I’m pleased we have a Conservative member of Parliament because now we can get on with Brexit."

Almost all of these conquered Labour strongholds voted to leave the European Union in 2016. For many, that referendum was a proxy for other simmering grievances relating to immigration and the idea Europe had too much control over their lives.

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In Bolsover, one of the least well-educated, least ethnically diverse constituencies in the country, some people say they feel forgotten by politicians in London. They are confused, frustrated and angry, some say, at why, after three years of debate and delay, Brexit still hasn't been delivered.

To them, the simple Conservative campaign promise to "get Brexit done" was appealing.

"I think most people here voted for Brexit rather than for the local candidate," said Chris Christopher, 34, who runs a fruit and vegetable shop on the town's main street. "It's still going to be a massive shock around here because we've been Labour for so long."

Image: Chris Christopher, 34, runs a fruit and veg shop, Bolsover, Derbyshire, the day after the general election on Dec. 12, 2019.
Chris Christopher.Alex Smith / NBC News

Many people in this deprived area appeared to have few qualms about voting for a Conservative Party responsible for a decade of punishing austerity cuts, which slashed budgets for police, housing, welfare and other services.

These policies have been "entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery in" the world's sixth-richest country, according to the United Nations.

Johnson, a privately educated Oxford University graduate of immense privilege, has promised to inject cash and resources into these ailing systems, but several campaign promises have already been exposed as somewhat tenuous.

It was a dirty campaign blighted by tricks and untruths by all major parties but most notably the Conservatives. It appears to have paid off.

A few miles up the road, the constituency of Don Valley elected a Conservative for the first time since 1922. Great Grimsby turned blue after voting Labour since 1945. And even former Prime Minister Tony Blair's old seat of Sedgefield was swallowed up by the Conservative advance.

In Bolsover, the outgoing Labour lawmaker, Dennis Skinner, 87, has been in office since 1970.

Image: Dennis Skinner, Labour party MP listens to speeches on the third day of the Labour party conference in Liverpool, north west England.
Dennis Skinner, Labour party MP listens to speeches on the third day of the Labour party conference in Liverpool, north west England.Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images file

His local and national notoriety can be measured in him having his own nickname, "the Beast of Bolsover." He represents the old Labour of industrialism and trade unions, rather than the modern party that's seen as speaking for urban college graduates with liberal social attitudes.

Skinner's supporters will point to his age and recent hip replacement surgery that meant he had a reduced presence on the campaign trail. He was defeated by Conservative Mark Fletcher.

Flipping these Labour strongholds was key to Johnson securing his party's biggest win since 1987. For Labour, the night was a catastrophe. Its veteran socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, led the party to its worst performance at a nationwide general election since the 1930s.

"I voted for Labour but I don't trust Jeremy Corbyn," said Karen Hepworth, 62, who runs a market stall selling knitwear in Bolsover's square. Labour's campaign policy was to renegotiate a new Brexit deal with the E.U. and put it back to the people for another vote.

"Why do we need another referendum?" Hepworth asked in exasperation, echoing a seemingly widespread dislike of the Labour leader in Bolsover that tracks with national polls.

Although the Conservative victory was unambiguous, there is uncertainty ahead for the U.K.

In Brexit, Johnson's next hurdle is negotiating new trade deals with the E.U., Washington and elsewhere. He has little time to strike these deals, opening the possibility that he may be forced into concessions that could anger the hard-line Brexiteer wing of his party.

Meanwhile, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there were gains Friday for nationalist lawmakers who want to separate from the U.K. and, in Northern Ireland's case, reunite with the Irish Republic to the south.

In this sense, the vote will do little to dampen fears, or hope, depending on one's perspective, that the U.K. might be in danger of breaking apart.