Thursday, 27 January 2011
If Basingstoke were in the Pennines it would vote Labour
Adam Gray asks why Labour fails to win in southern constituencies that would vote Labour if they were located in the North
Accept for one instant the premise that Labour under Gordon Brown didn’t understand the South (and it’s a struggle not to accept). Accept for another that possibly, just possibly, Labour throughout its entire term of office did not. Those two contentions pale into inconsequence compared to the third: that the south has never, ever, truly “got” Labour.
Prior to the 1997 general election, a much younger version of myself sought selection for the Hertfordshire seat of Broxbourne. Broxbourne has a deserved reputation as one of the safest Conservatives seats in the country; regularly with majorities above 20,000. What is Broxbourne? It is some exclusive leafy lanes where some of the capital’s football players make their homes.. But it is also places like Cheshunt and Waltham Abbey running up the eastern spine of the seat – the A10 corridor: commuter suburbs.
Cheshunt is where I spent most of my time when I was seeking the parliamentary nomination there. It’s a typical southern town: not huge, not especially glamorous, plenty of open space not too far from anyone’s doorstep, house prices affordable by London standards; not especially affluent but distinctly averse to Labour.
In London, much of the North West, Yorkshire and North East, the sort of political profile housing like that of Cheshunt would provide would be a decent Labour area. In Cheshunt, even when voters were really alienated by the Conservatives and turned to Labour to kick the Tories they still did not believe the party shared their values. Never did. Didn’t then. Don’t now. And that’s why it was so easy for the Conservatives to reclaim all the ground they lost in places like Cheshunt – and right across the south in the 1990s.
Cheshunt is southern England. The story of the south of England is commuter towns like Cheshunt. Reigate. Bracknell. Staines. Swanley. Epsom. Bushey. Leighton Buzzard. Basingstoke. Areas that in London are Labour. Areas that may occasionally elect the odd Labour councillor. Areas that are all part of safe Conservative parliamentary constituencies.
Why isn’t Labour the instinctive choice of voters in seats like those I’ve mentioned? Voters who aren’t overly wealthy, necessarily highly educated, working in vastly well-remunerated jobs; who have the same fears about schools transport and leaving their kids with a better legacy than they inherited from their parents?
Before Labour works out how it can appeal to these voters the party should work out why it has always underperformed in the south. If Labour could win plenty of votes in affluent, middle-class, picturesque Saddleworth in the recent by-election why can it not do the same in similarly or less affluent parts of the South? I
t’s not just a policy issue: it’s a perception problem. Labour just isn’t “for” the South, just as in large swathes of the north the Tories long ago relinquished any claim to be “of” those communities. And for Labour, the problem is about being seen to side with those who aspire to do better. Labour does not - and because it does not, it does not win southern votes who want a hand up, not a handout.
Labour has fallen back horrifically in many areas that should be ours – look no further than Basingstoke: a seat that would have gone Labour in 1997 on its current boundaries (and almost did on its old ones): now with a Tory majority of 15,000. One example of many, but if Basingstoke was in the Pennines, it would probably be Labour right now.
Sure, Labour doesn’t need to win Basingstoke or plenty of other southern seats like it to form a government, but its job at regaining and then retaining power would be one heck of a lot easier if it was at least competitive here – if only because the Tories would be obliged to spend much more to hold seats they currently simply bank.
Adam Gray is a former Labour councillor and party organiser
Posted by Stuart King at 07:50