How can Labour win in the British equivalent of West Virginia?

November 22, 2012 11:55 am

The US Presidential election results were a tremendous boost to progressive politicians worldwide. But let’s be clear whilst we can learn massively from Team Obama’s GOTV and ground operations our electoral targets are very different.

Whilst the American campaign focused on a number of ethnically diverse states with a range of occupations and combinations of rural/ urban populations our targets for 2015 could not be more different. Labour did disastrously in Shire England and nowhere more so than Staffordshire. Outside the Labour salient of Stoke Labour lost every single seat. Cannock Chase, the former mining town, has the highest swing against Labour of any constituency in the UK. If we want to make transatlantic comparisons Staffordshire looks a lot like West Virginia. Overwhelmingly white, a legacy of manual occupations in mining, brewing and pottery, stagnant or declining house prices and family incomes and a low level of university graduates and therein lies Labour’s dilemma.

On the night of Obama’s triumph West Virginia saw a massive swing against the Democrats. Working class West Virginia has remained loyal to the Democrats for over 100 years ( it even seceded from Virginia so it could remain in the Union). However in the last 20 years it has distanced itself from the Democrats nationally and now is firmly in the Republican camp. The Democratic strategists can afford to write off West Virginia because they can pick up from the growing ethnic populations and college educated populations in the key states. We simply do not have that choice.

Our electoral background is Shire England areas like Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire as well as Staffordshire. It is the Midlands rather than the more prosperous south of England that the election will be won and lost for Labour . Our problem is that, as a party, we are still failing to understand the concerns of the working class families who will determine the outcome in 2015. Whilst no doubt deeply hyprocritical is is noticeable that ConservativeHome is currently hosting a debate on how the Conservatives can appeal to a ‘blue collar’ vote.

So if Labour had to write a manifesto for Staffordshire what would it look like?

Making work pay
If you are willing to get out of bed for the minimum wage you should keep every penny you earn. Sadly the only party currently advocating that are the Liberal Democrats. Labour has to live up to its name and traditions and advocate for those in work especially those on lower incomes. Median incomes have been flatlining for years and are unlikely to see significant increases in the near future. One of the most effective ways of increasing family incomes is to encourage both partners in families to work and affordable childcare is key to this. How to pay for this? Well how about a windfall ‘coffee tax’ on Starbucks and other transatlantic tax avoiders. There is something deeply satisfying about funding benefits for Shire England from the cappuccino habits of metropolitan society. Also let’s have as much focus on well resourced apprenticeships as New Labour put on expanding university places.

‘Bootstrap Labour’
We live in hard pressed times and Labour need to reflect this in our public statements and actions. Whilst community organising is commendable we have to recognise that the political capacity for Labour in much of Shire England is weak. For this and other reasons we should be looking at our growing representation in local government. The model here has to be Labour Oldham. Under a dynamic new leadership they have transformed their relationship with their residents with an emphasis on co-operative values and mutualism where everyone contributes and gets something back. In 12 months they have forced the local bus company to reduce bus fares by 25%, set up the largest energy switching scheme in Europe with the prospect of reducing household bills by hundreds of pounds and set up alternatives to the legal loan sharks. We don’t have to wait until 2015 to show that Labour is on the side of hard working families – dynamic labour local government can do it now.

A Parliamentary Labour Party that shares our values
If we leave parliamentary selections to market forces then within a generation working class MPs will have disappeared from the PLP. Does it matter? Well in those heady Blair years if we had more MPs from a trades and construction background whose incomes were collapsing in the 2000s we may have have had a more balanced debate on the benefits of unrestricted immigration from Eastern Europe. If we want to win back the working class of Shire England we have to be much more willing to select candidates who have direct experience of their hopes and fears.

Labour has some difficult choices if we are clear about building one nation labour. It is too easy to stay in our metropolitan heartlands. If we want to recreate a winning coalition we have to reach out to working class communities in Shire England. We can’t afford to lose our West Virginias.

  • SR819

    ” There is something deeply satisfying about funding benefits for Shire England from the cappuccino habits of metropolitan society. ”

    I don’t understand why this is satisfying. There is no reason for us to be against “metropolitan society”, unless by metropolitan society you mean the super rich (rather than the Daily Mail definition which is anyone who is middle class, lives in an urban area and holds left wing views).

    Yes, we should look to have redistributionist policies but they shouldn’t be about taking from the so called Liberal North London elite (which doesn’t exist except in the paranoid minds of Mail readers) , it should about taxing businesses and the affluent and redistributing to the poor, regardless of whether they are metropolitan or not.

    ” Well in those heady Blair years if we had more MPs from a trades and construction background whose incomes were collapsing in the 2000s we may have have had a more balanced debate on the benefits of unrestricted immigration from Eastern Europe.”

    Collapsing incomes were more the result of pro-business policies and worsening worker protections (you could argue free immigration satisfies both, but immigration by itself was not the major cause of a weakening of the bargaining power of the working class. There’s no point of the Labour Party trying to become tougher than the Tories on immigration, because they can always outflank us while we’ll rapidly lose support from the so called “metropolitan” that you criticise.

  • Don McCarthy

    “make transatlantic comparisons Staffordshire looks a lot like West Virginia”

    Really? I trsut you’ve not visited both then? Obama lost West Virginia largely because of hostility to his environmental policies and WV is an active coal field; not one with a history of mining. For the first time in recent history the miners’ union the UMWA declined to endorse a candidate.

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