Thursday, October 14, 2010

How Labour can win in the South

A new pamphlet was released this week about why Labour lost the support of people in Southern England, and what it needs to do to win them back. It is written by a former MP, Giles Radice, and the former head of policy planning under Gordon Brown, Patrick Diamond.

This pamphlet is the follow up to research that was done after the 1992 election, which argued that Labour needed to modernise and stand up for individual freedom, against public and private vested interests, to show that the party could be on the side of those who wanted to get on, making responsible tax and spending commitments and promising to manage capitalism more efficiently than the Conservatives.

The 2010 remix has pages and pages about how immigration and welfare reform lost Labour support, the inevitable opinion polls designed to prove that the public agree with the authors, and concludes with eight "key messages". Some of these are statements of the obvious such as "Labour can only create a better society by winning and retaining power", or "Labour should try and recruit new people to stand as councillors". Some are rather more dubious, but you can kind of see what they are getting at. I sort of agree that "the 2010 leadership election showed the power and potential of community organising to reform and revitalise Labour", it is worth remembering that the candidate who devoted most resources to community organising actually lost, despite having the backing of the media, most MPs and the most money.

But the majority of "key messages" from the pamphlet are where the authors pretend that their own interests and opinions are representative of voters in Southern England. So we get recommendations that Labour must back the referendum on the Alternative Vote whole heartedly (although most voters in the South oppose it), and face up to issues that concern voters such as "the role of the state after the financial crisis" - a subject which, in fact, interests very few voters in Southern England, but which fascinates policy wonks who write pamphlets.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness of the "Southern Discomfort" pamphlet (although there are many) is that it doesn't actually look at where Labour did well in Southern England, and what we could perhaps learn from these successful campaigns.

Labour holds ten seats in the South East, Eastern and South West regions. In two of these seats, Labour's share of the vote increased - Oxford East where the Labour vote increased by 6.5%, and Luton North where it increased by 0.7%.

So let's compare Diamond and Radice's analysis of how Labour should win the support of people in Southern England with how Labour actually did so.

[It could, of course, be argued that these seats are not representative of Southern England. While there is some truth in that, it is worth noting that Labour did particularly well in Oxford East amongst the groups of voters who Diamond and Radice think that we need to focus on. Support for Labour amongst C1C2 voters was around 50%, and amongst DE voters over 60%. Winning support amongst these voters was essential in a constituency with 15,000 students at the height of "Cleggmania"].

Diamond and Radice argue that Labour needs to debate openly contentious issues such as immigration and welfare reform. In Oxford East, neither of these issues featured on a single leaflet, and I can't imagine that Kelvin Hopkins in Luton - a left-wing critic of the government's policies on both issues - did so either. Ditto for the role of the state after the financial crisis. Just because people raise particular issues in a focus group or agree with a statement in an opinion poll doesn't mean that it is sensible to campaign on these issues.

Here, instead, are some key lessons about how to win in the South and increase support for Labour, from the people who actually managed it:

1. Good candidates - both Andrew Smith and Kelvin Hopkins were personally popular, decent, principled MPs, prepared to vote against their party when they thought it was wrong on issues from renewal of Trident to the Gurkhas. While some MPs of all parties abused the expenses system to enrich themselves, Andrew has lived on Blackbird Leys council estate for more than thirty years, and Kelvin commutes from Luton to London daily, just like many of his constituents.

2. Hard work. Astonishingly, the Diamond/Radice pamphlet doesn't devote a single sentence to local campaigning or the importance of talking to voters in winning elections. Their analysis is entirely from the perspective of national policy-making. One key thing about active, local campaigning is that it reduces the influence of the media. Rather than trying to "triangulate" on pet topics of the right-wing press like immigration and welfare reform, personal contact with voters allows Labour to find out which issues really matter to people, and to take up and help sort out problems. If people find out about what Labour is up to in their area from their local MP or a Labour volunteer, they are going to be much more supportive than if they read the Daily Mail's view about what Labour's priorities are.

3. Oppose savage cuts. In Oxford, Labour attacked the Lib Dems for their support for savage cuts, and for their leader's idea of breaking up the NHS. This was fantastically successful in persuading people to vote Labour. It is not fashionable to say this, but I believe that in 2010, Labour would have won more support if we had been tougher in our opposition to savage cuts, rather than listening to wealthy journalists whining about how we needed to show "credibility" by pledging to cut services.

4. Improve and extend public services. Extremely few people are interested in discussing "the role of the state after the financial crisis". But extending recycling schemes so that people can recycle plastic, setting up playschemes for children, letting children swim for free and older people use public transport for free - all examples of concrete ideas for reform of public services which people put forwards, and which Labour won support by delivering. Even in safe Tory seats like Salisbury, people are receptive to policies like the Living Wage or universal childcare. (It's well worth reading the excellent article by our candidate in Salisbury).

5. Understand and call for action where the market is failing to deliver. On housing, childcare and social care for the elderly, Labour's failure to act meant that there was too little provision, and that which was available was often poor quality and too expensive. Local campaigners knew that parasites like bad landlords were wrecking communities in southern England, but government ministers blithely dismissed concerns and were more worried about the mythical dangers of "over-regulation".

In terms of political strategy, Labour should always be particularly focused on where the market is failing to deliver, because the instincts of the Tories and Liberal Democrats will always be to go against public opinion and refuse, on principle, to act to correct market failure. This allows for popular campaigns where the overwhelming majority back, say, tough regulations on slum landlords or paying a living wage to cleaners, but the right wing parties refuse to act.

*

This is only the starting point for a discussion about Labour's strategy over the next five years. Just because opposition to savage cuts, good candidates, improving and expanding public services and hard work were the keys to Labour's success in southern England in 2010 doesn't mean that they are a panacea for the next election.

For example, the advantage of having excellent, independent-minded local candidates is magnified when they have a team of staff and communications paid for by the taxpayer. In most Southern seats, our candidates won't have that advantage next time. On the other side of Luton, local candidate Gavin Shuker, who grew up in the town, managed to pull off one of the biggest shocks of the election - our new candidates should try to learn from his experience.

We need to develop new ways to get more activists involved in local campaigning, whether through community organising or other means, and build on Project Game Plan (silly name, great idea) to get more resources into local organising.

On policy, we need to gather new ideas about where the market is failing, and which public services need to be expanded or improved.

And there will be issues and challenges which are crucial in other parts of the South which didn't apply in Oxford or Luton.

But I really think we will learn a lot more from the campaigns and the approach of people like Andrew Smith and Kelvin Hopkins than from pamphlets like "Southern Discomfort". We need to recognise that Labour fought the 2010 election with official policies in favour of a points based immigration system, videos at airports of immigrants being deported, locking up immigrant children and trying to starve those without children to force them to leave the country, unemployment benefits which had been halved since the 1980s, medical assessments by private companies to force sick people off incapacity benefits, and £44 billion in spending cuts including bigger cuts in the NHS than the Tories were planning. Rather than helping to win us public support by addressing their concerns, our best results were found where our candidates didn't mention these absolutely abhorrent and shameful policies and instead gave people reasons to be proud to support Labour.

I don't know quite what more than this Diamond and Radice were thinking Labour could propose in terms of addressing immigration, welfare reform or a "credible" approach to reducing the deficit, as they don't deign to put forward any specific proposals. But we've already tried the approach set out in "Southern Discomfort", and that's why we only hold 10 seats in Southern England outside of London.

6 Comments:

At 4:47 pm , Anonymous Stuart said...

Oh thank God - I thought you were paraphrasing with approval all the "Labour needed to modernise and stand up for individual freedom, against public and private vested interests, to show that the party could be on the side of those who wanted to get on, making responsible tax and spending commitments and promising to manage capitalism more efficiently than the Conservatives" stuff.

I think the final point you make is very important - I try and tell my mum and dad about all that stuff around benefits and immigration but they don't care, to them Labour lavished money on welfare families and personally visited foreign countries telling people to come to Britain. At the same time, just before the election I met a 'swing voter' at work, probably earnt around or just below the median wage, and her biggest problem was that she has to pay through the nose for childcare, and then when she drops her kid off she sees unemployed women whose prams are much nicer than hers. If the New Labour solution of being nastier than the Tories didn't work and merely seemed to entrench nastiness as the norm what can be done next? Personally, I think they should stop pedantically obsessing about the who-gets-what side of welfare and look at how we can create decent jobs, with decent wages, and help people who are alienated from the job market (whether through lack of experience, lack of contacts or whatever) into jobs rather than just segregating them from everyone else morally. Incidentally, my mum often says how she'd be happier to pay higher taxes if it means helping people into jobs, providing training for people who haven't had the luck to go to college, or helping people on low-pay afford childcare.

Conclusion - Labour should bear in mind what people tell them, but they should do the novel thing of having first principles. I can only see triangulation (something the present government seem equally fond of) as miserable and ultimately doomed to fail at achieving any substantial worthwhile change.

 
At 4:50 pm , Anonymous Bon said...

I notice you missed out the main reason why Kelvin Hopkins is better known than the next robotic backbencher: he is a Eurosceptic.

 
At 5:10 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

Stuart - thanks, agree with all of that. Good to see your experience correlating with what this is arguing.

Bon - that's a good point, actually. Gisela Stuart is another example of a Eurosceptic who did very, very well.

 
At 1:15 am , Blogger james said...

For me, Southern Discomfort has always functioned as a return of the repressed - the repressed being Capital, and I'm not talking about London. I can't help but regard it as part of the way New Labour operated a kind of trickle-down politics - which was well meaning, strongly influenced by a deference toward the opinions of the powerful in society, but ultimately destructive of trust amongst voters.

Lord Ashcroft recently published polling of swing voters which inadvertently showed a radicalism which our party has long abandoned: a strong majority in favour of worker representation on the boards of corporations, reform of rail ownership, etc.

 
At 12:21 am , Anonymous Alun said...

Quite right; there's a real danger of making a fetish out of appealing to 'the South'. What is quite striking is that despite spending the best part of two decade's basing its electoral strategy around appealing to 'the South', not only does Labour have hardly any non-London southern seats, but there are quite a few constituencies in those three regions not held by Labour that would be were they in any other part of the country. More of the same is probably *not* what is needed.

 
At 11:15 pm , Blogger Stuart King said...

Don - would you be happy for us to republish this on the new Labour website, www.southernfront.org.uk? Contact details for us available on the website.

 

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