England’s coastal towns need Labour. We mustn’t forget about them

by Nathan Bennet

The Labour party should aim to represent coastal towns across the whole of Southern and Eastern England.

We hold seats in Southampton and Plymouth. Many of our target seats are there – Brighton, Hastings, Great Yarmouth, to name just a few. But I’d go further and argue that there’s a case for Labour representation well outside of our usual battlegrounds.

First, let’s debunk the general myth some permeate that there isn’t really a case for Labour in southern England outside our target seats. Bin the North-South divide – the real world is far more complicated.

Look at wages: Labour’s Southern Taskforce have mapped data from the ONS’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings. We’ve shown that right round the coast of Southern and Eastern England, average wages are below the national average. There are 43 coastal constituencies here where a higher proportion of people earn less than the living wage than the national average.

And it’s not always in the places you’d expect. In Torridge, West Devon average wages are just over £15,000 a year – £7,000 less than the national average. 38.6% of workers don’t earn a living wage. A report by Sheffield Hallam University and CRESR highlighted the dependency of much of the coast on seaside tourism. It employs 140,000 people in the South and East, and towns like Salcombe, Fowey, Southwold, New Quay, and Aldeburgh are heavily dependent on it. Yes they’re jobs, but they’re often seasonal and low paid, meeting few aspirations and offering few chances to get on

Rebalancing these local economies is as important here as in declining former industrial tows. The coalition’s reliance on market forces clearly isn’t delivering. The southern and eastern coastal communities, need an active government, willing to devolve power and resources, reforming the banks to support small business, delivering on real improvements in broadband, and tackling persistent failings in many schools that leave too many children poorly qualified and means that, even in regions of high HE participation, children from the poorer areas are missing out.

It’s not just the lowest paid who struggle. As the Southern Taskforce data has shown, the middle is well and truly squeezed with the costs of the cost of housing, childcare, social care, gas, electricity and water higher in these regions.

Housing is often under pressure, in part from the demand for second homes. In areas like North Norfolk (where 9.5% of homes and second homes), the Isle of Wight, South Hams, and Cornwall there are towns where average house prices have completely run away from what local wages can afford.

The average house price in Salcombe last year was £615,344 – but average wages were just £17,221. An average house in Sheringham cost £207,886 – but local jobs pay an average of £18,365. House prices were more than 15 times average wages in Padstow, Dartmouth, Wadebridge, Lymington, Lyme Regis, Aldeburgh, St Ives and Chirstchurch, to name just a few. And it’s not just those who want to buy who are under pressure here. The average rent for a two bed some coastal areas like Bournemouth and Eastbourne is over £700 a month.

Our coastal towns are home to many of England over 65s – some from the area, many came to retire. For example, over 30% of people in Clacton, Christchurch and the New Forest are in this age group. We will need to carry a lot of these voters with us if we want to represent these areas, and there’s every reason to say we could. Take just one issue, the biggest issue for most over 65s – the NHS. Over 65s use the health service more frequently than other age groups, particularly in later years.

The taskforce has outlined the growing crisis in A&E across Southern and Eastern England, as well as in GP and other services. Like everyone else, over 65s haven’t benefited from Cameron’s £3billion NHS reorganisation. Labour plans for investment in frontline services and an integration of health and social care could be one of our bridging points with them.

Even the briefest look at Labour policies shows that many – from housing building to rent reform; from capping rail fares to regulating buses; from delivering broadband to reforming the banks; from promoting the Living Wage to tackling fuel bills, could have been written with the South’s coast in mind.

Labour should have no doubts that we have the politics and the policies to make a real difference. Turning that potential into political support is not straightforward, but it starts with confidence that we belong here and have the right values.

In communities with no industrial tradition and little active party profile, voting Labour isn’t always the automatic choice for voters. It will only become one when we have an active presence on the ground, not just fighting elections but providing the leadership in local campaigns and local communities. We’ll need to build alliances of voters across the low paid, would be house buyers and the substantial older population that frequently sees comfortable retirement slip slowly into frailty and isolation.

In the next few months all our efforts will, rightly, be in the target seats we need to win a Labour government. But as soon as the election is over, we need to turn our efforts to build new support and a broader case for Labour in the south.

There’s no better way than shouting about the good work that our councils are already doing here, as well as the work of our councillors in non-Labour controlled areas.

As a sobering note to finish, I think we do also need to be honest about the political environment faced by every party in coastal towns. Many families on the coast lost out even in the good years of Labour government, and it is true that the feeling of isolation, both from economic growth and political decision making, is strong here.

Of course, these aren’t traditional Labour heartland and it will take a lot of work to establish a Labour voice here, be that in a councillor, a media appearance, or a campaign. But we’re the party planning to raise the minimum wage, offering business rate cuts to businesses who pay a living wage, reshaping the economy towards high wage, high value jobs and pushing for better transport links and broadband connectivity. There’s a strong case we can put to these areas to help start that process.

Nathan Bennett, Head of Research for Labour’s Southern Taskforce

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4 Responses to “England’s coastal towns need Labour. We mustn’t forget about them”

  1. Tafia says:

    I see Chuka has remained true to his Blairite roots and has been briefing anonymously against the Mansion Tax in The Sun.

  2. Michael says:

    poor costal and northern towns have been labour for 50 years and have remained poor what will be different this time when there is no money. Many parachuted London based Labour MPs representing these areas treat them like rotten boroughs.

    the best thing to do is to help the young to move to new homes built where the jobs are in the South and stop importing cheap workers from outside the EU but there is no chance of Labour doing anything that might actually work

  3. Roberrt says:

    Coastal towns on the south coast are often marginals that Labour needs to win, so I am a little confused by this article.

  4. Landless Peasant says:

    Coastal towns? What like Liverpool, Newcastle, Hull, Middlesborough, Glasgow?

    @ Michael

    “what will be different this time when there is no money.”

    But there is some money, it’s in the hands of the Rich, where the Tories have diverted it. It’s now up to Labour to get it all back.

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