Labour probably experienced a southern discomfort well before 1992, but it was after that year’s general election that the Fabians published the first of a series of pamphlets authored by the then Labour MP, Giles (now Lord) Radice. Twenty years on and while the fortunes of the party in the south have ebbed and flowed, the tide was definitely out by the time of the 2010 election, when just ten Labour MPs were elected to represent southern constituencies.
At its 2012 annual conference, Progress assembled an extremely experienced and well qualified panel to discuss the symptoms and causes of Labour’s current southern discomfort. John Denham MP has always been a voice to be listened to in these debates; he was joined on the panel by one former and one would-be parliamentary colleague –Joan Ryan (erstwhile MP for Enfield North) and Councillor Sharon Taylor (parliamentary candidate for the town in 2010 & 2015) respectively. The pollster Bobby Duffy of Ipsos Mori, completed the panel.
John Denham opened the debate with a somewhat counter intuitive (but nonetheless accurate) proposition: that the “Southern Voter” is a myth. The values of southern voters aren’t really that different to the values held by voters in the Midlands, the North and elsewhere in the
. The coalition Labour brought together in 1997, and the one it needs to recreate in 2015, just needs to be broader and deeper in the south. UK
As the Labour leader of Stevenage Council, Sharon Taylor’s contribution was a reminder to the audience of the important role that Labour councils and councillors can play in swing and bellweather seats. Even as Labour saw the Conservatives snatch the parliamentary seat from them in 2010, the party continued to use its control of the council to demonstrate how Labour values in action can still help those struggling to cope with the effects of the recession.
Joan Ryan recognised that the recent local election results were good for Labour generally, and very good for Labour in the south. But she offered a note of caution when she suggested that the party was still behind where it was in the polls when compared with a similar period in the nineties. She counselled against focusing too much political ammunition on the Liberal Democrats as Labour is the second place challenger in only nine of the junior coalition partner’s 57 seats. To win again, Labour needed to focus its energies against the Conservatives.
Ryan suggested that the principal outcome of the local elections had been that Labour had won the right to be heard again: “People are willing to listen to us again”. Echoing Denham’s theme, the next step she argued was to start talking about the issues that matter to the voters, not just to us as political activists (Lords reform, anyone?). The way to make this happen was to better connect policy making with campaigning. What we learn about the voters’ priorities when we speak to them on the doorstep should be fed into the policy making process. Policy making should no longer be the preserve of party elites: “policy making is for the many, not the few”, as she put it.
Bobby Duffy’s contribution was to alert us to the prize available to Labour. The local election results were the electoral manifestation of what the polls have been telling us, that David Cameron, George Osborne and the coalition government in general are all experiencing their lowest satisfaction ratings to date. Even more interestingly, the polls showed a significant decline in the percentage of voters who understood what the Conservatives stand for. The Conservative party of the south is vulnerable if Labour can articulate and demonstrate how its values place it “on the side” of southern voters.
With an audience that included Caroline Flint MP, the shadow cabinet’s champion for the south east, a number of leading parliamentary candidates from the region and activists from Guildford, Brighton,
Canterbury, Thurrock and the New Forest, when the debate opened up we were guaranteed some very useful insights and lessons from right across the Political South.
The session ended well as we returned to the need to demonstrate how our values could be better articulated and applied in the south. Labour, it was suggested, should talk more about the importance of responsibility and rather less about fairness. Voters rail against irresponsibility just as much as they do against unfairness: whether it is the irresponsibility of bankers; the irresponsibility of those capable of work but who choose not to; or the irresponsibility of politicians who engage in the wasteful spending of taxpayers’ money. Labour’s responsibility is to demonstrate that we understand this.
Stuart King is Editor of Southern Front and chaired the "Chronic Discomfort" session at the 2012 Progress annual conference. This article was also published on Progress Online.