As Philip Gould put it, the suburbs are not ‘places with great political traditions and dramatic folklore’. Most people who live in the suburbs aren’t interested in politics in the way most Westminster insiders would understand it. What they care about is what politics means for them, their family and their community.
In 1997 we built a coalition with roots in all corners of our country and every social class and constituency. In our inner cities, rural communities, seaside resorts, market towns, and in our suburbs too, Labour built a winning coalition. By 2010, suburban discomfort was back with a vengeance.
In London at least, the warnings were there. The map of the 2008 mayoral election looks like a doughnut – a small circle of red in the middle, covering the inner city areas that Ken Livingstone won, surrounded by a sea of blue, covering the suburbs that propelled Boris Johnson to victory.
Two years later in 2010, suburban seats like Finchley, Hendon, Enfield North, Harrow East, Brentford and Isleworth and Battersea all fell to the Tories. In Essex and Kent – classic commuter territory and part of the coalition that drove us to victory in 1997 – Labour no longer has any MPs at all. Even outside the south, seats like Burton, Bury North, Carlisle, Chester, Dewsbury, Dudley South, Ipswich, Lincoln, Loughborough, Milton Keynes South, Northampton North, Norwich North, Reading West, Rugby, Stafford, Swindon North and South, Warrington South, Watford, and Worcester are exactly the kinds of places that make the difference between a Labour government and a Tory one – and all of them could be described as suburban.
Victories for Labour in suburbia in this year’s local elections, in places like Norwich, Reading and Thurrock, show that the public are at least prepared to give us a hearing. Today, more than eight out of 10 people in England live in suburban areas, and people who live in the suburbs are more likely to vote than those who live in our inner cities. To win in 2015 Labour has to understand who chooses to live in suburbs, what they look like, what they care about, what they want, what they do, what they want their kids to do, where they holiday, what car they drive, why they want a conservatory – the lot.
Of course, lots of different people live in suburbs, and suburbs themselves are becoming more diverse, but there are common aspirations that we must speak to. If we look back to the people who moved to Enfield 30 years ago, their aspirations were reasonably straightforward. They wanted to buy a house, to settle down, to raise a family. They wanted to live somewhere safe, somewhere clean and well-kept, somewhere they would be proud to call home. They wanted to live near good schools so their kids would get a decent education. They wanted the peace of mind of knowing there were good public services nearby, if they ever needed to call on them. They wanted good transport links so they could get to work and go out in the evenings. They wanted to be able to enjoy life. And they wanted a government that was on their side.
Thirty years later, their children are now at the same stage in their lives. Their aspirations are no different to their parents’ – but their expectations are. The things that many people almost took for granted in the past now seem beyond reach for many. Home ownership was, literally, the building block for people’s aspirations. It was a symbol of progress and personal success, a safety net if things got tough, and offered the prospect of security in later years. Today, the average age of a first time buyer without parental assistance is 38.
And they feel under attack from this Tory-led government – seeing their hospitals closed, funding to their local schools cut, and wondering how their children will ever be able to afford £9,000 a year to even think about going to university. They see their family budgets being squeezed and can’t understand why this government is standing by and letting the big energy companies and the rail firms hike up the prices, while profits are soaring and people are still suffering from poor customer service.
This is the space Labour must occupy. If home ownership won’t be available until later in life, we have to have a secure, stable private rented sector that works for families. If energy bills and rail fares are driving up inflation and squeezing household budgets, we should look at how we reform those markets to deliver fairer prices for families and pensioners. And if university looks too expensive and jobs for school-leavers look unobtainable, we must show how we would ensure that the next generation will have the opportunities to get on in life.
As Peter Kellner’s research has shown, most people take a valence view of politics. They want a government that taxes fairly, spends efficiently, distributes benefits sensibly and shows they understand the sacrifices people have to make to earn a living and pay taxes in the first place. In the end, they want a strong, honest, principled, competent government – a government that can get the job done and is on their side.
There is no doubt that under Ed Miliband’s leadership, we are a more united and effective opposition than any of our critics would have thought possible. No one should underestimate the scale of the challenge we face to win in 2015, but nor should we over-complicate things. If the Labour party were a business we would set aside our own personal views and look at the situation dispassionately. We would start by locating the constituencies we need to win back in 2015. Then we would find the people within those constituencies whose support and trust we need to regain. Then we would work out what those people care about, and how we can come up with policies, rooted in Labour’s values of community, fairness and decent public services, that speak to their aspirations, as well as their anxieties. If Labour can reconnect with these suburban swingers, we can win in 2015.
Joan Ryan is a candidate in the members’ section in the Progress strategy board elections 2012. You can find out more about all the candidates at the dedicated Progress strategy board election microsite
This article was first published on Progress Online
This article was first published on Progress Online