This article was originally published on Progress Online
For those of us who are Labour activists in Kent, this has been the year we began to pull ourselves out of the political sea of blue that we found ourselves in at the end of our 13 years in government. We began to make progress in the local elections, taking control of the council in Gravesham and winning several seats in areas such as Thanet and Dover. Yet if Ed Miliband is to be standing on the doorstep of No 10 come 2015, we have to acknowledge that we need to do more to reconnect with voters in the South East.
It may not have been a traditional Labour heartland throughout our history as a party, but we did win much of Kent and many other seats in the south-east in 1997. The lesson for us to learn is why, by 2010, so many voters in the south-east saw Labour as simply not being on their side, not understanding the issues that were affecting them and not appreciating their aspirations for them or for their children. The task for us as activists in places like Kent is to reconnect with those voters we lost.
For a start, we need to stop ourselves from falling into the trap of thinking that we need to mirror the Tories to win here again. That would be cheating ourselves, it would be cheating the electorate, and, most crucially, it simply wouldn’t work. So instead of being ‘Tory-lite’ we need to put forward a radical agenda to show that we understand the concerns and the aspirations of those in the South East. The idea that southerners aren’t bothered about social justice, are relaxed with rising inequality and ambivalent towards public service investment is nonsense. When campaigning on the doorstep in Maidstone during the local elections voters regularly flagged up concerns and opinions that match Labour values and Labour thinking: concerns about their local hospital closing, fears over whether their children will be able to afford university fees, and anger over the VAT rise. But many here have simply got into the habit of voting Tory, and it’s our duty in the Labour party to say to these people that it doesn’t have to be like this, and present a credible alternative.
Fears for the prospects of the next generation are as strong here as anywhere in the country. Parents are seeing tuition fees treble to £9,000 as youth unemployment soars. Labour needs to show that it’s on their side, that it understands their fears and most importantly that it will do something about them. It’s a good first step to say that we will reduce tuition fees to £6,000, but we need to be looking into a fairer way of funding higher education, such as a graduate tax. Ed Miliband has rightly talked of the ‘British Promise’, that the next generation should always do better than the last and how this government’s measures are putting it at threat. This theme now needs to be echoed in clear policies and a graduate tax would be an excellent demonstration of this.
Many have cited immigration as a key factor in determining voting habits in the south-east. But to fall into the trap of immigrant-bashing would play straight into the Tories’ hands. Anger at immigration is superficial and acts as a scapegoat for where the real issue lies: housing. The current situation is deeply concerning and is set to escalate. The IPPR has predicted that by 2025 the south-east will have a housing shortfall of 77,000. It’s an issue regularly brought up on the doorstep, and is something that we as a party need to be tackling, with radical proposals for a substantial house building programme.
Of course having a clear policy agenda will count for nothing if we fail to communicate it to the electorate. For our message to punch through we need to organise. As part of Refounding Labour, the importance of ‘community organising’ was enshrined in the party’s new Clause I. This needs to be acted on and local parties need to engage and reach out to community groups. We need to take full advantage of the new ‘registered supporters scheme’, and in the process open ourselves up to the public. Many in the south-east say they don’t know what Labour stands for, so the best way to communicate that is on the ground, engaging with the electorate. Here in Kent I have worked with other young people to set up a Kent Young Labour group as a means to engage young people and aide the community fightback in the south-east. In a similar way, the excellent ‘Movement for Change’ has the potential to play a serious and substantial role in this fightback.
Labour needs to show it is on the side of voters in the south-east and that it understands their fears and their aspirations. It is easy for those from outside of the region to lecture on how to win here, but from first-hand experience I know that the two pronged method to achieve this is to demonstrate that we ‘get it’ on the issues facing families and, just as importantly, to build a grassroots mass movement to get our message out there. If we achieve this, then we can win back the south-east, and we can win the next general election.
Rory Weal is chair of Kent Young Labour and tweets @RoryWeal