Without a revival in the south there will be no new Labour government

by Rob Marchant

It is spring, two years into a parliament, and an activist’s mind turns to…elections (well, we are an odd lot).

Candidates start to be chosen and campaigns planned. We have a much clearer idea of what kind of opponents we will be up against in 2015. A new leadership finds its feet and gets to grips with its medium-term political strategy.

The trouble with the end of an era in politics, as in most other branches of human thought, is that in our rush to turn the page, we’re invariably faced with the baby/bathwater problem. And the next election is no exception.

New Labour is dead, and those of us who were part of it need to be sanguine about the need for moving on. But there’s a current fashion in some quarters of the party to go further: to try and convince ourselves that everything which happened after 1994 was somehow a tragic disaster, an aberration from Labour’s true path.

The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in the middle – it was neither perfect nor a disaster, but it was self-evidently a pretty good thing to be in government for thirteen years. But where Labour decides to draw that line, between what to keep from that success and what to throw away, will arguably determine our fate at the next election.

Now, it is certainly true that electoral landscape in 2015 will be rather different from what it was in 1997. For one thing, we are coming from a vastly higher electoral base than we did then. And we are also likely to have to deal with, in no particular order: voter disillusion with all parties; an ever-greater middle class, coupled with an ever-diminishing propensity to vote along the lines of class; the unusual phenomenon of a coalition in power, which may well lead to a collapse of the Lib Dem vote; a situation in Scotland whose resolution is anybody’s guess; and a continuing economic crisis.

The strange times in which we are living, with their awful uncertainty for pretty much everyone, add fuel to the attractive idea that the old rules no longer apply – an argument very easy to propagate when there is both a new generation of activists who do not even remember 1994, and an older one which never quite reconciled itself to the need to win votes outside Labour’s traditional base.

So, one of the arguments recently to be heard in – let’s not forget – a party rather dominated by Scottish, Welsh and northern English activists, is that we spent too much time chasing the votes of affluent southerners who would ultimately turn out to be capricious and flaky in their in their support.

And it is an attractive, if not entirely realistic, position, to take Labour’s 2010 wipeout in the south as proof positive of those lily-livered southerners’ treachery, having the temerity to turn away from a vote for Labour.

But one thing is identical between the pictures in 1997 and in 2015: our electoral system is still, despite Nick Clegg’s best efforts, first-past-the-post. And Labour, for the first time in those nearly twenty intervening years, will once again lack seats in the south – or, indeed, wherever there are constituencies which are neither affluent Tory strongholds or struggling inner cities – and it needs them to win.

It would be nice to think that with a one-more-heave strategy we could sneak back into power by simply appealing to our core vote and picking up the spoils from an imploding Liberal Democrat party. But that is a dangerous piece of foolishness and, furthermore, the maths does not add up.

In the South (loosely defined as the south-west, the south-east, and the east), we currently have only ten seats out of almost two hundred – less than five per cent. We used to have four times that number only two years ago. It is inconceivable that Labour could secure a majority without winning back a comparable number of seats in these regions.

This week Southern Front, aided by Progress, is launching its Fightback fundraiser kitemark, to help marginal constituencies across the country but especially in these three regions. In an era where the party itself is seriously strapped for cash in a way it has not been for many years, innovative schemes like this can help us deliver what the party may struggle to.

Whatever our political viewpoint, whether we consider ourselves on the right or the left of the party, there’s a simple conclusion to be drawn: we should all support such an initiative, because we can’t afford not to. The party machine should support it. The shadow cabinet should support it. Ed Miliband should support it.

This is not, after all, about political strategy. It’s maths.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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23 Responses to “Without a revival in the south there will be no new Labour government”

  1. Nick says:

    With Scottish independence, you can kiss government goodbye completely

    52 Socialist MPs removed from Westminster.

    Then on top the boundary commission addressing the in built advantage that Labour has from seats, and more will go

  2. Anon E Mouse says:

    With the boundary changes due, the clampdown on union funding and the leader’s debates which will be two onto one I think that Labour is doomed.

    The only part of Nick’s analysis above I disagree with above is the word “socialist”.

    Labour could pull it all back by agreeing an IN/OUT referendum on Europe if they got elected.

    The public would vote to stay in Europe so for Labour it would be win win…

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @Nick: it would, but it ain’t happened yet. Boundary commission effect is, I think, overstated.

    @AnonEMouse: funding is certainly tricky. But we don’t know the result yet. Europe referendum a number of my (pro-Europe) colleagues agree with. Personally not convinced.

  4. aboukir says:

    I recall (Guardian ?) that with no Scots and after the Boundaries revision, the 2010 Election would have given us;

    560 seats contested, (281 required for majority);
    Conservatives: 299
    Labour: 203 
    Democrats 41.

    And the point about the South was brilliantly analysed in the report ‘Southern Discomfort – Again’ bi Giles Radice, pointing out;

    “In 2010 there was a wipeout of Labour in South . There are no Labour MPs in Cornwall, Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset, West Sussex, Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire. In the South, outside of London, they hold10 out of 197 seats, or, combining with Midlands, 49 out of 302 seats.”

    If, as Neil Kinnock suggests, the election of Miliband means (old) Labour got its party back, does anyone seriously envisage this appealing to the South ?

  5. Brumanuensis says:

    The main problem with most ‘southern strategies’ I’ve read is that they seem to assume southern voters have very different priorities from everyone else. This means that many people become suspicious that another agenda is being smuggled in under the guise of an outreach programme. The main difference between the southern working class and elsewhere is that, with some local exceptions, unionisation rates have been considerably lower. This means that the Labour movement’s traditional connection with its supporters is less meaningful in these areas. But in terms of political priorities and overall attitudes, there’s not a great deal of difference between people in Gravesend and people in Gateshead.

    Another problem is what I’d call ‘1997 syndrome’, where people take 1997 as a baseline and assume that any future performance must equal it. I think of the 40 seats won in 2005, realistically only 30 or so are within reach at the next election. I would say these are (excluding those already held):

    Plymouth Sutton & Devenport
    1 – 2 of the Bristol seats (most likely ‘West’ due to student numbers).
    Swindon North
    Swindon South
    Portsmouth North
    1-2 of the Brighton seats
    Hastings & Rye
    2 of the Kent seats, most likely Dover and Chatham, with Rochester & Strood at a stretch.
    Milton Keynes South
    2 – 3 of the Essex seats, most likely Basildon, Harlow and Thurrock.
    Norwich South (‘North’ is probably out of reach).
    At a stretch, Great Yarmouth

    Which gives us a top-end of of 22 gains and a lower end of around 18, for a total of between 28 and 32, which is probably enough. But whilst SouthernFront do good work, a concomitant step is the acknowledgement that we’ll never be the natural party of the south and an avoidance of strategies that try and second-guess the views of the ‘southern voter’.

  6. swatantra says:

    1 For ‘lily livered treacherous southern voters’ read floating voters or undecided or more discerning swing voters. We need them; if they swing one way then they can be made to swing the other way, the Labour way.
    2 There has always been ust one Party namely the Labour Party. But for every new generation it has to rebrand itself to appeal to a new generation and hence ‘new’ Labour’; it never was a different Party but the same old Labour Party in a different guise. So ‘same old Toies: same old Labour’is a truism Things don’t really change that much ever
    3 It really is a question of Maths, which some of our more traditional and dyed in the wool so-called socialists but really trots, never seem to comprehend.
    4 The Scots will not vote to leave the Union
    5 The Brits will not vote to leave the European Union

  7. John Madden says:

    I would argue that New Labour victories in 1997 and the subsequent election were an ante-Thatcher reaction rather than a desire for a New Labour government. To win the South you need innovative policies and a clear-out of all those associated with previous administrations (including Ed). You need not be more left wing you only need display competence.

  8. swatantra says:

    John is right. The Tories lost in 1997 for being incompetant. And we lost in 2010 for being incompetant as well. Policy had little to do with it.

  9. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    There are some problems here. The first is the statement that Labour is “a party rather dominated by Scottish, Welsh and northern English activists”. This simply does not match reality, and I say that as somebody with my heart firmly in southern England (even if my body is temporarily in northern Scotland).

    Look at the NEC, where the constituency reps are predominantly Londoners and all based in the south. Look at where candidates are parchuted from, and where they’re parachuted to. Look at the coverage the mayoral election and the GLA have received in the Labour blogosphere, versus the attention paid to the likes of Birmingham and Liverpool. Hell, look at the membership lists. The big CLPs are in London, a few other inner city seats and certain university constituencies, whereas there are plenty of safe Labour seats with a membership under 250.

    If there’s a problem in the regional balance of the party, it’s that London predominates and that London is different from the rest of the south, because it’s an order of magnitude larger than anywhere else and because it doesn’t really engage with anywhere outside its borders.

    Whilst I applaud the Progess kitemark idea (it’s unlikely to be a big contributor, but it can’t hurt) I do think we spend “too much time chasing the votes of affluent southerners who would ultimately turn out to be capricious and flaky in their in their support.”

    This is because we need to win southern marginals, not the south. We need to win seats which are entirely or mostly focused on a major town or towns. Look at the seats we held in 2001. How many of them included significant rural chunks? Very few, and in most of those we only won by stacking up considerable margins in the urban areas.

    And southerners in winnable urban areas are somewhat demographically different from southerners in market towns or rural areas. They’re younger, they’re less wealthy, they’re less likely to own their own homes, they’re more likely to be or recently have been on benefits and they’re less likely to have lived in the area their entire lives. Their concerns are more likely to be about affording a house than house prices, they’re more concerned about unemployment than pensions because they’re less likely to be saving and the way in which they’re worried about crime is going to be different.

    I think we need more focus on winnable voters in these areas, and less on southern voters as a whole. Because if we win the former, we’ll win the election and we’ll never win the latter, not even in a repeat of 1997.

    This wouldn’t necessarily mean a more right- or left-wing approach, in fact it’d probably be elements of both, depending on whether you’re trying to increase turnout in former council estates or build a base in new owner-occupied developments. But it would be a much more targeted, more effective and therefore hopefully cheaper approach.

  10. Rob Marchant says:

    @aboukir: as above, the UK has not broken up as yet, so I’d say that’s a bit premature. Re “getting his party back”, I think it’s clear that’s not the case. There is still a very broad range of views both in the Shadow Cabinet and the PLP. But yes, Giles Radice is right about the South. It applies a much as it ever did (ironically, it would be less of an issue had Clegg won on AV).

    @Brum: well, they *do* have different priorities, sorry. That’s a lesson we learned a long time ago. And by the way, even if they didn’t, the “key seats” strategy we have practised for quite a long time is a pure product of the FPTP system, not how people think. I think your point about second-guessing Southerners’ views misses the point: we have to get the Southern seats out of sheer numbers.

    @swatantra: thanks. If I had to bet, I’d say the odds on your points 4. and 5. coming true are pretty good.

    @John: a good point about the “competence agenda”. On current Tory performance we could win on this alone, but I daresaythey won’t keep cocking up this badly continuously for the next three years.

  11. Brumanuensis says:

    “@Brum: well, they *do* have different priorities, sorry. That’s a lesson we learned a long time ago. And by the way, even if they didn’t, the “key seats” strategy we have practised for quite a long time is a pure product of the FPTP system, not how people think. I think your point about second-guessing Southerners’ views misses the point: we have to get the Southern seats out of sheer numbers.”

    Do they? If we go back to ‘Southern Discomfort Again’ polling from summer 2010, we find that although some perceptions of parties are very different, on many (like, rather surprisingly, ‘who’s closest to immigrants and benefit claimants’) the difference between north and south is negligible. But these is perceptions, rather than actual political opinions.

    I’ve read little to suggest that, adjusting for demographics, southern voters as a mass are more right-wing. Indeed John Denham’s research suggests that there’s little measurable difference.


  12. Rational Plan says:

    The Southern working class are more likely to be self employed or working in the private sector. Labour identifies with the public sector worker, is often ready to demonise the priivate sector. Anyone who is successful or makes a profit has obviously done so at the expense of others etc. Just need to read many left wing blogs to see what they think of these tory voters.

  13. john P reid says:

    robs’ points agreeing with SWANTANTRA and John, are spot on

  14. swatantra says:

    Nothing wrong in profit as long as it is not obtained by the exploitation of others.
    Labour needs to attract more small business people into its fold; they are the life blood of the country and contribute immensely towards growth. Labour must be seen as the friend and supporter of the hard pressed hard working SMEs. Its not just the public sector workers that we champion but the ordinary people out there the entrepreneurs with ideas rying to earn a decent living that we need to champion as well.

  15. Felix says:

    “which are neither affluent Tory strongholds or struggling inner cities”

    Astonishing the number of people who fancy themselves as writers but systematically flunk the neither/nor rule.

  16. Rob Marchant says:

    @Brum: “I’ve read little to suggest that, adjusting for demographics, southern voters as a mass are more right-wing.” Why on earth would you adjust for demographics? That defeats the object. Southern voters are more right-wing *because* of demographics. If not, why would they consistently return Tory MPs?

    @RationalPlan: I can’t fault your logic, really.

    @JohnPReid: Thanks John.

    @Swatantra: exactly right. As noted in “Labour’s Business” (hint: Ch.3 is very good!)

    @Felix: and the pedant of the night award goes to…

  17. Robert says:

    No New labour government, thank god for that.

  18. Brumanuensis says:

    “Why on earth would you adjust for demographics? That defeats the object. Southern voters are more right-wing *because* of demographics. If not, why would they consistently return Tory MPs?”

    No, I think you’ve misunderstood my point. If we were to compare Maidstone and Accrington, a comparison of them as mass units would lead us to conclude that urban southerners were right-wing and urban northeners were left-wing.

    But this would be misleading, because we wouldn’t be comparing like with like. Maidstone has more AB demographic voters and Accrington more C2, DE type voters. We know the latter are more inclined to vote Labour than the former. So the proper comparison to make is between C2, DE’s in Maidstone and C2, DEs in Accrington. Are the former more right-wing than the lattter? I’m not certain, but I suspect they’ll face similar pressures on their finances and similar issues to northern voters of the same demographic.

    Trying to appeal to a generic ‘southern voter’ is a strategy bound to end in failure. My point is the same as Edward Carlsson Browne’s. We should engage with those southern voters in places like Hastings or Crawley, who elsewhere would vote Labour but who either don’t turn out or who vote Lib Dem or Conservative. Not go chasing after people who only vote Labour once in a blue moon. St Albans and South Thanet are not priority targets.

  19. Leon Wolfeson says:

    New Labour is dead, sure, because Labour has moved even further into the center.

    Try going the other way.

    Rob Marchant – Not really. FPTP means the Tories can win a majority, without Scotland, with a third of the vote. They’re working VERY hard on alienating the Scotts. (Party of the Union my backside)

  20. swatantra says:

    For any real legitimacy there has to be a Presidentail System ie Executive Power of a Presidential Mandate can only be determined by the TOTAL number of votes cast for the President, rater like that in France.
    1 For Labour to govern just because of Scots votes stinks
    2 For the Tories to govern just because of the N/S Divide stinks
    3 For any Party to claim a mandate on just two thirds of the electorate turning out to vote stinks.

    The Queen will not abidicate and could go on to serve another 10 years or more.
    God Save You Ma’am. By that time the gloss of the Diamond Jubilee will have worn off and the Platinum Jubillee will not have been that appealing: the Country cannot afford to put up with this pretence of Privelige any longer. The Queen will serve out her Reign and be the last of the Monarchs, and the Country by that time ready with a Presidential System to put in place.

  21. Mike Homfray says:

    Not entirely accurate

    Yes, some seats will need to be won in the south – but not actually very many – to win a majority.

    So, a strategy which concentrates too much on this is mistaken. Personally, I don’t want a huge majority. It makes governments both complacent and cautious in that they assume they are in for two terms, and then worry about losing the seats they wouldn’t normally have won in the first place

    So – lets go for the Reading seats, one of the Swindons, Stevenage and Medway. But lets not worry too much about Wimbledon, Romford and Castle Point. And lets not forget that the seats we also need to win are in the north and midlands where LD collapse will mean we can pick up a large number of marginals. Let’s not put those voters of with talk of changing the way we look at people in need, as I heard Flint whining on about the other day

  22. Nadine Horrors says:

    We need a progressive left movement that puts clearly the case for FULL EMPLOYMENT and a decent welfare system. For too long we on the left have accepted high unemployment as a price of the service based economy and look where it led us. Why is Germany economically strong? You all know why.

    I’ve just read Burger Bar Dad, it’s kind of a Leftie love story but it talks about the fact that we didn’t sign up for mass unemployment under Thatcher New Labour carried on that ideal and cemented the notion.

    We need to discover Democratic socialism and find new ways of saying, that this system only works if we all benefit from it. That’s what propelled us to power in 1945, 1966 and 1997. The fact that we lost big afterwards is that we forgot to deliver.

    Lets crack on

  23. uglyfatbloke says:

    Swatantra – Not at all clear that the Scots will vote to stay in the Union; it’s more likely than not just now, but in general there is a steady – if slow- change in public opinion. More importatly perhaps, the proportion of people who are actively opposed to the Union is steadliy diminishing. I believe that that can be turned around, but putting Darling and Lamont at the front of the campaign won’t help.

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