Southern Comfort

22nd March, 2012 2:01 pm

At the last general election less than 1 in 6 people voted Labour in the south-east. The simple, unavoidable truth is that we cannot elect a Labour Government without winning in places like Crawley, Milton Keynes, Southampton and Reading. Every radical, reforming Labour government has been the product of broad-based coalitions, with roots in every party of the country and all classes.

As Labour’s new regional champion for the south-east over the coming months, I’ll be leading teams of Labour MPs and peers on the campaign trail across the south-east – and reporting back exclusively to LabourList. First stop: Reading.

Packed lunch in hand, joining me on the 10 o’clock train from Paddington were Vernon Coaker, John Woodcock and Alison Seabeck. In 1997 we won both Reading East and Reading West. At the last election, Reading West fell to the Tories and we slipped to third place in Reading East, behind the Liberal Democrats. We must win Reading back.

Our road back to power starts in local councils, and in this year’s local elections 16 seats are up for grabs in Reading. The day started with campaigning in Redlands ward, which currently has 2 Liberal Democrats and 1 Labour councillor. Knocking on doors in all the streets around Erleigh Road, we found lots of people supporting our Labour candidate Tony Jones.

With red kites (the bird kind) overhead in Katesgrove ward, we met residents who are backing Labour candidate Rose William’s campaign for landlords to be made to clear up mess and overgrown gardens, and chatted to parents at Katesgrove Primary School.

Hitting the airwaves on BBC Berkshire, I had the chance to explain how our policy to put all over-75s on the cheapest tariff for their gas and electricity could save over 9,000 pensioners in Reading as much as £200 a year, proving that even when there is less money around Labour can still deliver fairness for elderly people struggling with their soaring bills.

After Reading, John Woodcock and I hit the campaign trail with Fiona Mactaggart and our colleagues from Slough’s Labour Council – a shining example of a council that has refused to be paralysed by the huge, frontloaded cuts imposed by this Government. At a great Progress event later that evening we talked with local councillors, candidates, party members and activists about how we can recapture and shape the centre-ground and win again in the south-east.

Arriving back in Doncaster just before midnight, I reflected on the day, how we’d won in places like Reading in 1997 and what we need to do to win them back. Times have changed. We’re not going to win the next election trying to recreate the 1997 campaign. The easy optimism of the late nineties and the noughties has given way to a different mood. More anxious. More insecure. Living standards flat-lining. Unemployment rising. Concerns about identity and community. We will address those insecurities, show that Labour is a party for all times, and not just good times and prove that we understand that fairness is about what you put in, as well as what you get out, and a fair welfare state is based on rights and responsibilities.

But, most of all, we’ll be ambitious and optimistic, and show people that Labour is on their side if they want to work hard and make a better life for themselves and their families.

Next stop: Southampton.

Caroline Flint MP is Labour’s Regional Champion for the south-east

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  • Caroline is quite simply wrong. We can win a majority without the south-east. We can’t win a BIG majority without the south-east, but I think that’s preferable anyway. Big majorities lead to complacency and compromise because the government thinks it has two terms sewn up

    Let’s get real. The South hasn’t voted Labour in large numbers for a long time – and only in 1997, in reality. By 2001 the votes had decreased but the Tories stayed away, in 2005, the strength of the LibDems helped us hold on to some marginals – but we all know what happened in 2010.

    And I doubt there will be a large number of gains in 2015. there will be some, sure – Stevenage, maybe one of the Reading seats, perhaps Harlow. But we won’t win Romford again, or Harwich, or Castle Point. And we shouldn’t worry too much about that – remember the Tories won Nottingham North and Leicester East in 1983 and they certainly won’t win those again.

    If we angst too much about the fact that we are not as strong in the south, we take focus away from the need to win all the marginals – and many of those are in the Midlands and the North, where the LibDem vote is in freefall, but we have to demonstrate clearly that we are deserving of it – given many of those voters supported the LD’s because of issues such as student fees and Iraq.

    •  I mostly agree with you, but just because we won’t win the popular vote in the south-east, doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore it.

      The south-east is growing because of the country’s economic imbalances, and that means that every time the boundaries are redrawn we’ll lose safe Labour seats in the north and see new safe Tory seats in the south. We need to build our base in the south because in three of four elections we will have to win a dozen seats in the south-east to win a majority.

      There are areas of the south-east where the underlying economic circumstances ought to favour Labour, but we consistently underperform. We lost far too many council estate wards in the south from 2004 onwards and though we’re winning some back, turnout remains down. And that cost us seats we should have won last time. You mentioned Harwich as a seat we won’t win back. I think you’re probably right, but if we’d won the ward including the most deprived area of the country by more than 2 votes last time, we’d have a better chance. Neglecting the south means we lose areas we ought to win by a country mile.

      What’s more, cost of living is more in the south. That means the squeezed middle message is more effective and that, coupled with an attack on Cameron and Osborne as out of touch metropolitan types – London is not generally that popular in the south – is a potential springboard we ought to take advantage of.

      We have plenty of surplus resources in the south of the country – look at the huge membership lists of some London CLPs. We can’t effectively use those in the north, but they could pay dividends in Reading, or Basildon, or Bedford. So some focus helps there.

      And moving away from campaign practicalities to how we govern, it’s not helpful to have a government that doesn’t understand the south, because they assume it’s basically Texas and make vast concessions on tax and spending that southern voters didn’t need or want. You will continue to get Labour right-wingers elected in County Durham seats and unless there are southern Labour MPs to point out that they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, we’ll get ministers talking about abolishing inheritance tax when they should be talking about raising the minimum wage.

      I agree that we need to focus on marginals and that the midlands is the key battleground, but don’t ignore the south. It’s not an area we need to win, but we do need to not get crucified there.

      • Yes, I’ll go along with that – as I say, we will win some southern seats. What concerns me is the attitude that unless we win all these southern seats we won’t form a government. Not true.  And the argument often used is that its because of the south that we shouldn’t pursue any radical policies.

        The starting point in the south, where I was born, so I’m not talking from a position of ignorance, is to contest local elections. Lets take Bucks, my home county. In the last local elections, Labour contested only ONE seat on South Bucks Council. In Wycombe, less than half the wards were contested including at least two which we won relatively recently.  In Aylesbury, where we won back a couple of seats for the first time in a couple of decades, it was the same story. I totally agree about Harwich – and look at the locals, its the same story there.

        If Labour doesn’t stand in local elections, then we soon get forgotten and people grow out of the habit of voting for us. In Reading they have always contested all the seats and we have kept a high profile.

        •  I’ll go along with that, but I don’t have a problem with not contesting half the wards in South Bucks. If we’ve got candidates who want to do it, that’s great, but if not then I’m not too bothered about seats where we get 15% in a very good year.

          It’s the wards we could win that matter – like the Wycombe ones we mention. The effort needs to concentrated on making a genuine effort in those winnable areas, so we at least have something to build on.

          • The problem is, Edward, that the presence of Labour in Bucks as a whole is seen as an irrelevance. I think we should put up a full slate – UKIP managed it in Aylesbury, for goodness sake! The problem is that once you don’t have a Labour candidate to vote for locally, you start thinking ‘ok, I’ll vote Liberal to keep the Tory out’. Then the General Election comes along – and people start voting Liberal there too. Its happened in a lot of these southern towns, and I think that putting up local election candidates is the start of a fightback.

            But lets get real – the south-east region is tilted towards the Tories.  We can win wards here which are socially more comfortable than most of the wards in High Wycombe town. Having said that, there are urban wards in places like Wycombe which we should do better in.

    • William

      Right Mike. But what about the Norwich seats, Bedford, Cambridge and Waveney.
      It’s the East where we were really decimated last time.

      • Brumanuensis

        William has a point. The East is far more fertile territory for us; particularly the Norwich seats. The South East is a lost cause. Best focus on marginals like Waveney rather than wasting time on so-called marginals like Crawley or the Kent seats.

        • jaime taurosangastre candelas

          I’m not so sure, I think there may be only 3 or 4 seats (not to say 3 or 4 seats are unimportant).

          Cambridge is lost forever to Labour, being solidly protest tories voting liberal.  Even the student fees issue is resulting in local opinion polls going to the tories.

          Norwich is always a possibility.

          Harwich is very tied with the economy and trade, and the tories appear to be doing well in convincing the electorate that Harwich has a great future as a national point of entry for global trade, with new and upgraded road links.

          I don’t know Ipswich, but the old fishing industry died out and not much seems to have replaced it, so it is a possibility.

          Luton is declining as a Labour prospect, increased by Mrs Moran and her expenses.  The other Luton MP for Labour is popular.

          Boston in Lincolnshire could be a good win for Labour.  It is the most desolated town, beset by social problems and being actively infiltrated by BNP and the like, capitalising on the residents’ fears of the eastern european influx.  There was real anxiety and anger when some eastern european sex traffickers based in Boston were shown to be the most likely perpetrators of a murder of a young woman whose body was dumped at the Queen’s estate at Sandringham.

          Harlow is always marginal, but Labour needs to say something to the aspirational to overturn Robert Halfon.  He seems to be personally popular as well, always on the TV with a well-crafted message that appeals to his constituents.

          But overall, East Anglia is going to be solid blue with at the most 5 or 6 splodges of yellow or red.  Mostly yellow.

          • AlanGiles

            But you have to remember the LibDems are going to be very unpopular and heavilly targetted by both main parties at the 2015 election – most of their seats, except possibly those in the West Country will probably go to either Conservative or Labour.

            We might get an indication if there has to be a by-election in Chris Huhne’s constituency this year – which is not impossible.

          • Your argument doesn’t bear much relationship to electoral reality. If Cambridge was lost forever to Labour, we wouldn’t have got 36% in the local elections last year to the Lib Dems’ 23%. It’s absolutely going to be competitive next time, because Huppert is a weak local MP.

            The future of Harwich doesn’t actually matter too much to the new Harwich seat, because most of the population is in Clacton and nobody’s managed to create any jobs there for quite some time. I don’t think perceptions matter. What matters is whether the Labour vote in Harwich and Clacton turns out or whether it’s drowned by the deep blue countryside in betweeen.

            I wasn’t aware Ipswich ever had too much of a fishing industry, but that hasn’t been a factor for ages. The public sector is much more important there these days. It was pretty close last time and we ought to win it back next time.

            Margaret Moran is not the MP for Luton, and as we hold both seats it’s not a prospect, it’s an area we need to hold. And it’s actually fairly strong for us, largely off the back of an increased BAME population.

            Boston is somewhere we  couldn’t win in 1997 and it’s not on the radar now. It’s just not doable, especially since the seat includes a lot of rural areas we could never hope to win.

            Certainly most of the east is safe Tory. We’ll only win seats in urban areas. But I highly doubt that the Lib Dems will have more seats than us after the next election – they only have three now and two of them are likely to fall to us.

          • William

            How the hell is Cambridge lost? Lots of student voters and Huppert is  hopeless. The Tory vote in Cambridge is confined to the Hills Road area and they have no councillors on the Town Council. Can’t really see all those students flocking to vote for Cameron & co.

          • Largely incorrect

            Cambridge is a likely Labour gain next time – the LD’s have been badly affected there by the Coalition, although the MP is no enthusiast.  The Tories haven’t a hope of regaining it (it always used to be a Con-Lab marginal in any case, its now a Lib-Lab one)

            Luton is moving TO Labour – in the late 70’s both seats were won by the Tories. Moran is history now. Demographically, the Tories in Luton have never been weaker

            Ipswich tends to go with whoever is in Government, but is Labour in an average year. Will be won back next time. The two Norwich seats are similar.

            Harwich was a one-off win for us. There are some areas of Labour strength but also some very Tory areas. Very much an outside possibility

            Boston and Skegness isn’t really winnable – its very typical of an area with a great amount of working class rural Tory deference. It is the sort of seat which votes far more Tory than its make-up suggests owing to cultural and geographical reasons

            Harlow is characterised by huge swings one way or the other. The last local election results were good for Labour and the LD’s have lost all their seats on the local council – three by defection to Labour

            Peterborough is a very outside bet but their local Tory council may hand us the parliamentary seat.

            Generally, though, its a blue area, always has been, always will be. As long as we win back the expected seats, which given their make up, we will, then no problem

    • The insistent focus on the south east is an emotional hankering for the blissful dawn of ’97. The Blairites having lost their leader, and facing an uncertain future in opposition, are only able to find meaning in the replication of a fading promise. Like Dicken’s Miss Havisham, they dwell amid the comforting familiarity of yesterday.

      As Glasman wrote in January: “the old is dead and the new is not yet born, and in the meantime all kinds of morbid symptoms emerge…”

  • JoeDM

    So if you want to win in the South-East you need to bring back Tony Blair or someone very like him because the Red Eds won’t do it. They are too identified with Brooon.

    • Mike Homfray

      Rather lose than that!

      • GuyM

        I hope your wish comes very true

    • AlanGiles

      Oh for God’s sake, Joe “Red Ed”? – he is as red as you are.

      If you must dredge up stuff from the archive, stop using old Sun “newspaper” headlines.

  • Jeff_Harvey

    To be honest, Caroline, I stopped voting for the Labour Party because strange ambiguous amoral careerists like you had, somehow or other, undeservingly and undemocratically, risen through its ranks to assume leadership rolls. Once you and your ilk have steered the Party into losing several other general elections and are history yourselves then and only then might I be persuaded to give my vote to the Labour Party once again; rather than seeking to heap blame onto the backs of other shoulder the burden yourselves.

  • GuyM

    Ah well, given that Scotland will almost certainly get either independence or increased tax powers, it seems certain Scots Labour MPs will be blocked voting on English matters (as will the Welsh most likely).

    Throw in the population increases in the south and the redrawn boundaries and Labour are going to need more than a few southern seats to govern England again.

    In my area of Surrey we never see any Labour campaigners, if we did the local militia might reform to flog them out of the constituency.

    • John Ruddy

      Guym didnt you realise that Labour won a majority of seats in England in 1997, 2001 AND 2005?

      In fact only one general election since the war would have had a different outcome by ignoring the scottish results.

  • Peter Barnard

    @ Carolyn Flint,
    “The easy optimism of the late nineties and the noughties has given way to a different mood. More anxious. More insecure. Living standards flat-lining. Unemployment rising. Concerns about identity and community. We will address those insecurities …”
    And, where are those insecurities that you mention most prevalent? I don’t think that it’s in the relatively high employment in the south-east – parts of London, yes, but the south-east : I don’t think so.
    In 2001, Labour was returned in 354 constituencies in the NE, NW, Y & H, EM, WM, London, Scotland and Wales ; in 2010, Labour was down to 248 seats in these areas : down 106. For the SE, SW and East, Labour had 58 seats in 2001 and 10 seats in 2010 : down 48. On the boundaries then existing in 2001, Labour won enough seats north of a line from Bristol to the Wash, and in London, for an absolute majority in the HoC.
    If you are concerned about “insecurities” of the electorate, you should be where the insecurities are the most prevalent.
    Even after the Boundary review, of the 502 English seats, 310 are outside the SE, SW and East. The West Lothian question is in the air at the moment – Sir William McKay will report in due course and, I guess, Parliament will decide.

  • Bill Lockhart

    ” we met residents who are backing Labour candidate Rose William’s
    campaign for landlords to be made to clear up mess and overgrown gardens”

    Why? Did the landlords make the mess? Do the tenancy agreements make garden maintenance the responsibility of the landlord or the tenant?
    Instead of  energetically campaigning for someone else to be forced to do something you’d like to happen, how about  putting the energy into doing it yourself?

    • treborc

       In my area that would be the council, who now refuse to do anything. If you take over a property and the garden has a car dumped in it your the one expected to pay for the removal, they do not even clean up the property any more.

      So good land lords Labour will have to sort out it’s councils, we  did we voted in an independent

  • madasafish

     Slough’s Labour Council – a shining example of a council that has refused to be paralysed by the huge, frontloaded cuts imposed by this Government”

    Would that be the same council which the Slough Times  posted “A dump unfit for local citizens”?

    and the same council  had a meeting which was described as: ” had the appearance of an arrogant Communist-style dictatorship. If there was any genuine resemblance to transparency, democracy, public accountability and openness, Slough’s Labour-run council hid it so well it was invisible – ”

    and “The local borough council has been taken over by people who clearly, by their own actions, have no affinity with our town, no pride in our town as evidenced by the disgraceful Slug bus station, the appalling town centre road works, two damning condemnations by government inspectors of council officials’ shocking child protection failures, the inability to produce the council’s annual accounts in a satisfactory condition and on time plus a shocking waste of the public’s hard earned cash on utterly senseless frivolities.”


  • Suey2y

    I increased my share of the vote by 31% at the last locals here in Sunny Worthing – Tory Blue Rinse central. I went from 4th to 2nd at the count.

    Oddly though, no-one has ever asked me how…..

    • hey, well it wasn’t by watering down the message, Sue!

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  • LadyLawyer

    Caroline – I am a governor in a school in one of the Reading wards you mentioned…what are you doing about education in our Borough?

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