In 1997 Labour made major breakthroughs in the three southern regions, holding many of those seats until the 2010 election.
Today, we have the same number of MPs as in 1992 (with more seats to contest). Despite good local election results in 2012, Labour representation in key local authorities lags behind where we were three years before the 1997 election.
Labour clearly faces particular electoral challenges in the southern regions. In part it’s because the demography and geography of the south throws up few ‘safe’ Labour seats which we can win by appealing to only one part of our potential electorate. Key southern seats tend to have more swing voters, so if things are running against us we do particularly badly. (By the same token the relative resilience of Labour’s middle class vote suggests an as yet untapped potential in the southern regions).
Across the south, Labour success relies on our ability to mobilise the broadest coalition of voters, not the targeting of a particular section. That can only be done with a broad and values based appeal that unites many different types of voter.
But doesn’t Labour’s poor performance simply suggest southern voters are actually significantly more right wing, with more deeply conservative values. It may be counter-intuitive, but despite the myth of the ‘southern voter’ – holding a distinct view of the world that needs a special and particular appeal; better off, more aspirational, and generally more right wing – there’s not a lot of evidence that southern voters are very different to those elsewhere.
On the major value issues, southern voters feel pretty much the same about taxation, the role of the state, migration, rights and responsibilities and the rest. There are few signs they are keener on breaking up the NHS, cutting the police or selling off forests.
The problem is not the voters or their values; it is too often how the Labour Party has come across. In brief, southern voters too often don’t assume we stand for them (in the way that very similar voters would in other parts of the country. Too often, the Labour Party simply does not exist as a real presence in their communities.
It’s for these reasons that Ed Miliband has asked Iain McNicol and me to lead a time-limited southern task force. In letter to CLPs and elected representatives sent in August we set out the aims.
- Making sure Labour’s story is right for the south. We can be confident that Labour values are in tune with many southern voters. But not all see us as ‘their’ party, part and parcel of the life of southern England. So we will look at the best ways of making sure Labour is seen as standing up for the people in the south.
- Making sure we use our resources as effectively as possible, bearing in mind that we have relatively few current MPs and Labour Councillors to support our candidates in key seats and councils.
- Making sure we present our case as effectively as possible in all parts of the local, national and social media.
The taskforce will meet in early September to plan our work, but we hope it will include a session at the Labour conference, and a series of consultation events in October and November. We will report to Ed Miliband before Christmas.
If there are particular issues you feel we should address, or proposals you wish to make, please send a brief note to Malcolm_Powers@labour.org.uk
John Denham is the Labour MP for Southampton Itchen