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Home Opinion Labour's fatal southern flaw?

Labour's fatal southern flaw?

Patrick Diamond & Giles Radice - 24 September 2010

In light of Labour's worst electoral performance since 1983, Policy Network is reinterpreting Giles Radice's seminal pamphlet "Southern Discomfort", in order to highlight and revisit the party's crippling weakness in southern Britain. Ahead of the launch of the pamphlet "Southern Discomfort Again?", the authors outline some of their key findings

Any party seeking to recover from electoral defeat must develop a coherent analysis of why it lost and how to put it right. For a decade, the Conservative Party refused to listen to voters. Its reward was the worst sequence of election defeats since 1832. Labour must not make the same mistake, as it did in the 1950s and the 1980s. It needs a credible strategy that will enable the party to win next time, escaping the sterility of opposition.

Our analysis, based on new YouGov polling, examines the crippling weakness that Labour faces in southern England outside London. In the south and the midlands, where general elections are determined, Labour holds just 49 out of 302 seats, and the swing against it was over 9% in many seats. We need to understand why the party performed so disastrously, and why the 1997 coalition unravelled in such spectacular fashion.

Focusing on the south and the midlands might seem misplaced given that Labour performed poorly in other regions, notably Lancashire, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Humberside. Yet this misunderstands Labour’s strategic weakness. The party already has a dominant position in northern and Celtic Britain. Even if it does better at the next election, there are not enough seats in Wales, Scotland and Northern England for Labour to secure a convincing parliamentary majority. The key to recovery lies in the marginal constituencies of the south and the midlands.

True, Labour lost ground among unskilled (DE) voters – and we need to confront that fact. But the party will only restore its electoral fortunes when it performs better among white collar (C1) and skilled (C2) voters – those most strongly represented in the southern and midlands marginals. The DEs now amount to no more than a quarter of the electorate, while the C2s and C1s make up nearly half. As the polling expert Peter Kellner recently argued, “The figures do not support the argument that Labour paid a heavy price this year for neglecting its core voters; rather they tell us something far bigger about long-term trends and what Labour needs to do to regain power”.

In 1992, floating voters were aspirant and upwardly mobile. Today, they are far more cautious about their own prospects, prioritising security and a better future for their children. In our poll, 59% of respondents felt that the next generation would be the same or worse off than them. Just 18% were confident that their children would be able to buy their own home, and fulfil their educational potential without building up large debts (19%). Only 37 % were confident of a good standard of living in retirement.

This group of voters feels more insecure and vulnerable than ever. Wage rises over the last five years have been small or non-existent. Many have to work harder for the same, or even less money, leading to record levels of consumer debt. For many voters in the south, life is now far more financially insecure than it was during the previous decade.

As a result, wavering voters in the south are now confused about what Labour really stands for. Only 32% of southern voters were clear about what “Labour stood for these days”, against 60% who were not. In contrast, 61% felt they understood what the Conservative Party represented following Cameron’s drive for brand detoxification. Remarkably, these voters are actually clearer about the Liberal Democrats than they are about Labour. The party must show that it understands the concerns of the “squeezed middle” on tax, law and order, public spending and welfare, conveying a coherent sense of how Labour would govern Britain. 

At the same time, voters in the south no longer regard Labour as the party of fairness. They say they “get nothing” from government; in contrast, they believe that groups who work less hard, or who do not deserve help, are in receipt of a host of benefits. This was highlighted by findings in our poll about the proximity of political parties to particular groups in society.

These voters perceive Labour to be close to benefit claimants, trade unions, and immigrants, but distant from homeowners, the middle class, and people in the south. In contrast, the Tories are the party of southern England, the middle class, and homeowners. The debate about fairness is complex; after the financial crash voters are as resentful about the very rich as they are about benefit cheats. At present, however, Labour appears removed from the political centre-ground.    

The Conservatives have won back southern voters who grew hostile to John Major’s government. They now trust the Tories to manage the country, and fear that Labour will damage the economy, raise their taxes, and spend profligately. More generally, they worry that Labour has little to offer ordinary, “hard-working” families. In our poll, the Conservatives are trusted more on every major competence question: to run the economy by 44% to 16%; to reduce the deficit by 51% to 12%; and to get value for money on behalf of taxpayers by a margin of 31% to 12%. Even where Labour should perform strongly, it still trails behind the Tories: Cameron’s party is preferred by 27% to 16% on cutting spending fairly, and on achieving greater equality and social mobility by 22% to 16%.

Shockingly, 47% of voters in the south believe that public spending under Labour was largely wasted; they live in fear of profligacy and waste, not least because they themselves often manage tight family budgets. If Labour does not restore its reputation on the key issue of economic competence, it will forgo the right to be heard on its wider aspirations for a better society.  

Since 1997, the basic character of Britain has changed and southern voters’ perceptions of their economic prospects have altered sharply: the economy is a source of insecurity and fear as much as a ladder through which aspirations can be fulfilled. That presents major challenges and Labour cannot simply return to the strategy of the 1990s. But if the party learns key lessons it can regain support, seizing victory next time and becoming once again the natural party of government.

The pamphlet Southern Discomfort Again? will be published by Policy Network on 11th October.The polling referred to in this article was carried out by You Gov on 26-27th August 2010, specially comissioned by Policy Network. A launch event will take place in Westminster, in association with The Fabian Society. For more details visit www.policy-network.net/events

Giles Radice is a Labour peer, author of the original Southern Discomfort pamphlet in 1992, and of the recent New Labour biography Trio (published by IB Tauris, 2010). He is a former chair of Policy Network

Patrick Diamond is Senior Research Fellow at Policy Network, and at Nuffield College, Oxford . He is formerly head of policy planning in 10 Downing Street

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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