Tuesday, 11 January 2011
A way back for Labour in the South
Ben Bradshaw MP explains how Labour can chart a course back into Government
The 2010 general election result was dreadful for Labour in the South of England outside London. We were reduced from 45 MPs to just 10: two in each of Bristol, Southampton and Luton, one in Plymouth, plus Exeter, Oxford East and Slough.
It could have been even worse. Labour only did fractionally better in terms of our share of the vote than in our worst ever result in 1983, when we only got 3 MPs in these regions. The reason we held on to 10 this time was a combination of exceptional organisation and campaigning in some of the seats we held and the less than overwhelming Conservative performance. But the mountain Labour has to climb in the south to win back the seats we lost this year and in 2005 is huge.
Joan Ryan, the former Labour MP who had a terrific result in Enfield North but still lost narrowly this year, has done an analysis of some of the seats we lost in 2005, which is all the more alarming. In many cases where the Tories scraped in in 2005 they are now sitting on five figure majorities. So, coming back from here for Labour is going to be very hard. It will require a fundamental look at the reasons for our decline in southern England outside London and policies to address it.
The veteran Labour politician Giles Radice and the former No 10 adviser Patrick Diamond have written an updated version of Giles’ seminal 1992 Fabian pamphlet on “southern discomfort.” It’s a useful start – along with the detailed analysis of voting behaviour in the election – for understand and addressing the problem. Labour did particularly badly in terms of the number of votes we lost among the skilled white working class and lower middle class suburban families.
These groups of voters are concentrated in higher proportions in seats in southern England outside London. We did relatively well among traditional/tribal working class Labour supporters and urban intellectuals. That helps explain our better than average results in places like Oxford and Exeter. Anyone who was out on the doorstep during the election knows what the issues were that hurt us.
Immigration (usually as a proxy for a shortage of housing and pressure on other services) and a feeling among those C1s and C2s and suburban families that we’d lost touch and weren’t on their side.
Perceived unfairness in the tax and benefits system was also a major grievance. How often did I hear voters talk not about mythical people whose cases they had read about in the tabloid press but friends of theirs or even members of their own family who were on benefits and apparently no worse off than they were although they were the ones getting up and doing a full day’s work every day?
In his original “Southern Discomfort” Giles Radice identified Labour’s then failure to appeal to the “aspirational” voters as our Achilles heel. Labour’s historic successes in 1997 and the two subsequent elections were partly because people felt Labour had finally “got” aspiration. Giles’s conclusion this time is that insecurity has replaced aspiration. That we failed to address the insecurity and sense of fairness of the hard working voter who did very well under Labour until 2006 but have seen their living standards at best stagnate since. Coupled with that, the global economic crisis, ensured that insecurity about their and their children’s future was their overriding concern at this election.
I suspect insecurity will be around for some time to come – not least given the impact of the coalition government’s disastrous economic policies on jobs. But we would be wrong to think aspiration has gone away. It is natural and desirable for people to want to get on and for their children to have more opportunity and better lives than they have. That’s what the Labour Party should be for. If the economy does recover and people begin to feel more optimistic about their futures we need to make sure we can appeal to them.
There is a danger that retrenched back into our heartland areas in the north and the big cities it is harder for southern voices to be heard. With only 10 MPs and one shadow cabinet member (John Denham) from the south, we have to be extra careful that the debate is not dominated by voices from areas that always have been and will for the foreseeable future be strongly Labour. That is why our members and small band of councillors in southern England are so important. It is vital that you get your voices heard. We also have a great opportunity to boost our councillor base in next May’s elections. The Lib Dem vote is evaporating in many parts of the South as progressive voters show their disgust at Nick Clegg’s support for Thatcherite policies. This means Labour should be able to pick up council seats across southern England including in local authority areas that have been Labour free zones. This will require hard work, discipline and relentless targeting, but it can be done.
The AV referendum is also a chance to rebuild in the South. Views will of course vary there as in other parts of the country, but support for AV is likely to be higher – particularly in those areas where Labour voters have long felt disenfranchised by the current first past the post system.
I’m optimistic that if we do all these things and pull together as a Party nationally and locally then we can come back – including in those seats in southern England Labour needs to win to form a Government.
Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw is Labour MP for Exeter
Posted by Stuart King at 07:53