Why did coastal towns stop voting Labour? And how do we win them back?

25th August, 2012 11:01 am

This week Rob Williams argued in his article on coastal towns that they were a key battleground for the next General Election and an opportunity for Labour if they can find the right policies to appeal to these communities. I don’t disagree, but what are the policy answers for these communities?

There are 17 constituencies in England that Labour gained from the Tories since 1997 but that are now all lost again. From Blackpool and Morecombe in Lancashire, to Scarborough and Lowestoft in the east, to a string of seats on south coast from Dover to Falmouth – these all went Labour with a swing half as much again as the national figure in 1997. However the same volatility repeated itself in 2010 when the swing to the Tories was also 50% higher than the national average.

So what is going on? Why are these areas so electorally promiscuous?

The 2007 report from the House of Commons Communities and Local Government select committee identified the common characteristics of coastal towns: “physical isolation, deprivation levels, the inward migration of older people, the high levels of transience, the outward migration of young people, poor quality housing and the nature of the coastal economy”.

An older demographic is normally more electorally loyal through thick and thin. The large transient population living in bedsits and coming for the winter to stay in holiday lets, is an electorate most likely to stay at home. These two groups should stabilise the vote, but they appear to be outweighed by a highly disillusioned working population.

By definition these communities are physically on the periphery. They are on the edge of high value economic activity and are dominated by low pay sectors such as tourism and care. The biggest employers are often the NHS and the local council. Working people here benefitted from the national minimum wage but not the City-Regions approach to economic development, and they relied on the sorts of intervention that only the Regional Development Agencies were capable of.

The working poor are understandably more volatile in their voting behaviour. They feel distant from the business, media and political elites. They see the successive scandals amongst politicians, bankers and journalists that reinforce the notion that what goes on in London is for “them” and not for “us”. Local house prices are artificially high because the same elite have pushed up prices in pursuit of their holiday homes. Local services are stretched because their councils are funded at the same rates as shire counties, despite coastal communities having to support large numbers of elderly and transient people.

I still live in Weymouth, the town I represented in Parliament from 2001-2010. Working families around here feel let down. There are very few large workplaces and union membership is low. Politics makes them angry.

These are the people we must appeal to if we are to swing them back to Labour. They need policies that will deliver work that pays, work that is secure and all year round, and with lower house prices. The test is whether the tide will turn of young people migrating out to better themselves and that aspirant single people stay and prosper.

This needs a set of policies from an active Government. Leaving it to the market will never deliver for these peripheral communities. Intervention is needed that is locally sensitive but with more strategic capacity than local councils. If not RDA’s then we need something specific to tackle market failure in coastal communities, both in terms of employment and housing.

But policies are not enough. We also need to find ways of rebuilding trust and showing that voting can deliver positive change. There are few Labour councils in these areas. We must start by rebuilding this base with priorities that show that we are in touch, we are local and we will act.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords. 

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  • Redshift1

    Good article. 

    I think another point to remember if you take Blackpool or Morecambe is that traditionally they were Tory voting towns, dominated electorally by relatively affluent people who moved there later in life. The nature of employment in these areas has also meant they haven’t had the same trade union influence historically as towns relatively close to them (e.g. Lancashire mill towns like Preston, Blackburn, Burnley, Accrington, etc). So it is worth bearing in mind that from a historical perspective voting Labour is a relatively recent phenomenon in these areas. 

    What they have experienced that has changed that is demographic change driven by the gradual and painful decline of their tourism industries, that whilst still large cannot provide for the population at large anymore – simultaneously, people don’t retire there in the same numbers they used to. This has dramatically changed the demographic make-up of the settlements and made them increasingly favourable to Labour. e.g. Blackpool in recent years has ranked amongst the worst on many economic indicators from deprivation to child poverty. 

    Those two swing statistics are actually fairly misleading when all the above is considered. Blackpool had two Tory MPs before 1997, two Labour MPs between 1997 and 2010, and lost Blackpool North & Cleveleys but retained Blackpool South in 2010. Blackpool South is now considered pretty safe, it is pretty hard to imagine going back to the pre-1997 scenerio of having two Tory MPs. Morecambe similarly had a Tory MP right up until 1997, which was retained until 2010, where it was lost but only by a very small margin. 

    Now, where your article is excellent is your point about the low-wage nature of the much of the Labour vote in these areas. This does lead to a relatively large turnout drop amongst Labour voters when we are nationally unpopular such as in 2010 (which allowed the Tories in). I think a fair concluding point therefore is that very high levels of voter contact and voter mobilisation could address this – not only allowing us to win back seats like Blackpool North & Cleveleys and Morecambe and Lunesdale – but to make them safe Labour seats.

  • AlanGiles

    “They need policies that will deliver work that pays, work that is secure and all year round, and with lower house prices……We also need to find ways of rebuilding trust and showing that voting can deliver positive change.”

    If I may say so, because voters have found increasingly that politicians of all parties promise more than they can deliver, don’t promise work all year round etc and lower house prices unless you can actually guarantee it – and of course, nobody can: nobody will know what state this country will be in in 2015. It is high-flown promises and pledges that are not met that causes the lack of trust, amongst ordinary voters towards all parties, hence hung Parliaments – people think they are all as bad as each other, and frankly, honesty compels me to say that if the right-wingers in “Progress” get too much input into the next manifesto, the perception will continue that there isn ‘t much difference.

    • aracataca

      Nice to see you’re being more polite these days Alan. Rest assured that Progress is only one strand of opinion within the party and IMHO largely because things have moved on considerably over the last few years it is is no sense more dominant than any other. I wholeheartedly agree about over promising and under delivering. In 2015 we should focus on under promising and over delivering. 

    • People do not know what will occur in the 2015, Alan but you can make a very good guess. Unemployment is likely to be very high, there is likely to be next to no growth, the deficit will be high and people will be facing a real squeeze on their living standards.
      We do not regularly get hung Parliaments, Alan and in all honesty Progress is one of the only pressure groups that is actively on the centre ground in terms of Labour politics. Progress isn’t some rightwing organisation, and in all honesty Alan people in coastal towns who voted Tory last year will not vote Labour if it lurches to the left.

    •  You do realise who wrote the last manifesto?

  • aracataca

    The grey vote needs to be courted, since it may be older voters voting Tory who have lost these towns to the Cons, while younger voters don’t bother to vote at all.  These younger people need to become more engaged with politics instead of the apathy of thinking all parties are the same.  

    The omnishambles of this government is politicising more people who were previously apathetic and disillusioned with Labour.  We need to get the message across how we would do things differently.

  • tele_machus

    You do not even need to try
    The coalition show themselves wedded to the metropolitan banking elite.
    The coastal folk feel keenly the neglect and crave a government that cares

  • Serbitar

    The fact that Labour pretty much ignored the plight of rural areas and broke every single one of its promises in respect to building council houses did the party untold damage around the coast and at the seaside. When millions of people feel that they have been lied to, taken for grated, or played for suckers by a political party it’s very hard for that political party to regain the people’s trust when the same group of people are still leading it.

  • Redshift1

    I posted a significant sized comment on here. I’m not really impressed that the moderation means that it still hasn’t gone up. If it is being blocked, I’d like to know why – I considered it a thoughtful and good-natured comment. 

  • markfergusonuk

    It wasn’t “blocked” but I now need tyo approve most comments on the site to avoid the sort of nonsense that used to go on here – and yesterday I was at a wedding. I hope the good readers of LabourList will understand if I have one day off in August, on a Saturday…

    • Redshift1

      Fair enough. It just seemed strange that I posted immediately when it went up, yet other comments went up before mine. My apologies.

    • Brumanuensis

      And there was me thinking LabourList HQ was like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfA371zhfHo

      • PeterBarnard

        I hope no-one from Conservative HQ sees your YouTube enclosure, Brumanuensis – it’ll give them ideas for their 2015 manifesto … “the whippings will continue until morale improves.”

        • Brumanuensis

          Well Peter, we haven’t seen the full contents of ‘Britannia Unchained’ yet. Who knows what Priti Patel has in store for us?

          • PeterBarnard


            What will be interesting on the release of ‘Britannia Unchained” will be its reception by the Conservative Party. One interpretation of the title could be a proposal for (at least) a radical change in our relationship with the EU.

            For sure, the book will be replete with supply side/trickle down nonsense.

            I hope Mr Cameron has an ample supply of Nurofen to hand.

  • Redshift1

    It depends what you mean by ‘a lurch to the left’ and unless the right start going into a bit more detail on this all they are doing is scare-mongering. 

    Like most voters, people in coastal towns want a party that will stand up for them. You could easily ‘lurch to the left’ significantly on issues like transport, job creation and improving pay and conditions for low wage workers and it would prove popular in coastal towns. It really does depend on the issues at hand. 

    • Lurch to the left is what it is and I think everyone knows what that means and it isn’t scaremongering at all, it is the reality of politics. Labour has experienced a lurch to the left before and it cost the party credibility and seats in elections so let us not undermine it. Elections are fought and won on the centre ground which is where people are. Many of these coastal towns, if not all, where actually New Labour gains in 1997 apart from Dorset South which we weirdly gained in 2001. People do not want a party which prioritises things that don’t matter to them at all, they want the party to talk about real issues affecting them not some leftwing populist tireade. One policy would be to have People’s Trusts whereby ports in coastal towns, like Dover, would turn into a community asset mutually owned by the people of the town to resist any further privatisation. But fantasy policy that sounds good on paper is not the way to go.

      • AlanGiles

         Renie, There is no sign that Labour is “lurching to the left” with it’s current shadow cabinet.

        One thing I do hope sincerely we are not going to have a “lurch” to is a repeat of your attitude towards people you disagree with as you did under your former alias, by trying to rubbish sincerely held views: everyone has a right to their opinions.

      • AlanGiles

         Renie, There is no sign that Labour is “lurching to the left” with it’s current shadow cabinet.

        One thing I do hope sincerely we are not going to have a “lurch” to is a repeat of your attitude towards people you disagree with as you did under your former alias, by trying to rubbish sincerely held views: everyone has a right to their opinions.

        • You are right about the shadow cabinet. What former alias?

          • AlanGiles

             I think you know the screen name I am referring to, Renie.

            Writing style doesn’t change, even if names do.

          • Sorry? This sounds very cryptic.

    • AlanGiles

       I would genuinely like to be given some examples of why Renie thinks the party is drifting to the left. Indeed, frankly, Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet seem anxious not to be too critical of the Coalition – I will give an example: Twigg gives Gove a very easy run for his money at Education – I have never heard Twigg speak with the passion Andy Burnham does when he is doing battle with Lansley and his acolytes (even though in truth I doubt AB is reallly quite as outraged by Lansley as his words suggest) – but at least he makes an effort.

      We won’t even contemplate the Byrne stance on welfare – the “he didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no” attitude that greats the Grayling/Duncan-Smith policies.

      I genuinely don’t believe Labour is lurching to the left: as for union and left wing motions at Conference, we know that the party managers will decide what does – and more crucially – what does not  – get discussed.

      Before long though Labour will have to get off the fence: sitting between two stools means that eventually you will fall off.

  • Winston_from_the_Ministry

     Unfortunately for Labour their memories will extend beyond 2010.

  • Pingback: Why did coastal towns stop voting Labour? And how do we win them back? | labourcoastandcountryblog()


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