The South is not a foreign country

February 18, 2013 8:28 am

There is a myth in Labour circles that has become engrained. It’s called the “Southern voter”. This caricature is selfish, anti public sector and has a chip on their shoulder. They drive flashy cars and slam doors in your face. They are materialistic and hate all tax. They think benefit claimants are scroungers, and they won’t vote Labour.

They are also a fiction. These traits are not widespread on any poll data or consistent with anyone I have ever met on southern doorsteps. It certainly doesn’t look anything like my family, who are southern voters. My grandparents might not have been into “Politics” but they lived out Labour values every day in their commitment to hard work, family, community and neighbourliness.

Strangely, the myth of the southern voter unites very different sides of the party. New Labourites think that Tony Blair was the only way to win them around, not because he necessarily shared their values, but because his charismatic personality trumped their reactionary views. Meanwhile on the left of the party, many believe that courting southerners will mean compromising their values and “selling out”. So behind closed doors in the run up to the Eastleigh by-election, a good chunk of the party didn’t want to bother investing too much in the south.

We desperately need to challenge this myth. There is no such thing as “the southern voter”; there are just voters. When you knock on their doors, southerners tell you again and again about the cost of living, the shock of energy bills, about their fear of a future where their children are burdened with debt and housing insecurity. These similar priorities across different social groups were well documented by the Northern Lights report, but have been hammered home to me hearing stories from Eastleigh. These are people who share our values and concerns, which are deepening and becoming ever more aligned in the downturn.

If anything, worries about the cost of living are stronger in the south because living costs are on average 20% higher than the rest of the country, whilst wages remain low outside of London. This is one reason why food banks have been spreading faster in the south than the north.

Although it’s not on the same scale, in some ways the south is now going through what the north experienced under Margaret Thatcher. New high-tech industry has located in the south over the past two decades. But now that manufacturing has declined by 0.4% under this government, the south is also going through the painful process of redundancies, sadly symbolised by the loss of Ford in Southampton this winter. Southerners are now the ones suffering from neo-liberal policies and the unemployment that ensues, and this time Osborne will take the political hit.

Luckily I am not alone in this view. People inside the party are pushing for a different approach. John Denham, one of our only 10 Labour MPs of the south’s 197 potential seats, has set up a Southern Taskforce to address exactly this problem, and fought hard to get a good presence on the ground in Eastleigh.

So if our values aren’t so different from southerners, why do we hold so few seats there? Miliband’s focus on the squeezed middle and the cost of living is completely in line with voters’ priorities. The big problem now is not that our policies are out of touch, but that we are less present there. The excellent Southern Discomfort Again research showed that only 32% of southerners were clear what Labour stands for, compared to 60% for the Tories. We are left with a self-reinforcing cycle where we think we can’t win, so we don’t put in the resources to do so. The reality is that good community organising has been shown to make the difference.

I want a party that southern voters like my family can vote for. Writing them off is not moral or strategic. It’s not moral because you’re leaving people without a decent Labour choice at a time when they need a party they can trust, and it’s not strategic because a party that wins without the south will only have a brittle lead after 2015, forming an unstable base for a two term government. If we really want to be a One Nation party, we’re going to have to earn it.

  • Dave Postles

    ‘ If we really want to be a One Nation party, we’re going to have to earn it.’

    It’s almost time, then, that you diverted your gaze from the ‘squeezed middle’ (who have some resources) to the indigent poor (tautology) (who have none). There’s much to redeem there.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000584193588 Ryan Midnightfantasy ✯ Carter

      I think you’ll find the ‘squeezed middle’ a little bit of triangulation that was deliberately vague Ed is the first leader I can think of in my time who looks above income. He has said if your working but not seeing the rewards matching your productivity or your living standards are stagnating or falling, poor, middle, whatever we want to be there for you. Somebody on a 20% higher wage in the South for example to draw from the text faces the same problems, if not worse because the benefits and top ups don’t go as far as they do in the North where i is 20% cheaper to live.

      Wage differentials are important and both Ed’s have made that clear, we stood up and were counted against the welfare up-rating bill ( a proud day) and we are standing firm on the ‘bedroom tax’, 50p tax rate, mansion tax, 10p tax, job guarantee etc.

      Squeezed middle makes more sense because of it’s vagueness, it’s the old proletariat.

  • Robbie Scott

    “They are also a fiction. These traits are not widespread on any poll data or consistent with anyone I have ever met on southern doorsteps”

    I think ‘middle England voters’ and ‘Southerners’ are synonymous pretty much… For me it’s a valid term. I enjoyed reading your article though.

  • http://twitter.com/PaulBHalsall Paul Halsall

    I know you may have no control over the ads, but I was a little surprised to find a Wonga advertisement attached to this piece.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    I think it goes far deeper than just getting more local supporters and better communication/awareness. Labour won seats in the South in 1997 and retained many through to 2010 and the base won’t have collapsed over night so as an explanation on its own it isn’t sufficient.

    Having shown that voters have similar concerns the author makes a huge assumption that shared concerns are the same as shared values. They are not. Values shine through in the solutions or policies to address those concerns.

    You could address cost of living issues by working to increase take-home pay, you could cut income tax or equally, increase tax credits or benefits; two possible solutions but a very different set of values behind them. Again with housing, you could address shortages by launching a programme of social or affordable housing construction or, you could relax planning to stimulate private construction/owner-occupier growth. Again, two solutions coming from two very different sets of values.

    Sharing concerns is not enough, Labour has to have policies/solutions which resonate with the voters values.

  • Chilbaldi

    Well Rowenna it’s all very well what you want, and I enjoy hearing the details of your family history. But you miss the fact that the interests of the south and the north, the south and the midlands, the south and wales, the south and Scotland are quite different. In some ways completely irreconcilable. The south has in many ways different priorities.

    The question you should be answering is, how can Labour write policies that appeal to southern voters without alienating voters in the rest of the country over the longer term. Because our experience post 1997 shows that we cant play to every gallery for all time, and that in the end one part of the country or another gets fed up.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36910622 Edward Carlsson Browne

      This is idiotic. You know why? Because there isn’t even a clear dividing line between the south and the Midlands, so it’s beyond me how you think they have completely different interests. I note you gave no specifics.

      Labour has a problem in that we perform much worse in the same demographics in the south than we do in the north. We’re not going to win rural seats or wealthy London commuter towns, but in 2010 we had some shockingly bad results in areas with a large working class, significant concentrations of social housing, a high proportion of public sector workers and a tradition of manufacturing. That has to be addressed.

      It doesn’t need to be addressed by major policy changes, though. As Rowena’s links show, and as John Denham has argued, southerners don’t seem to want different policies (and those who do are probably not the southern voters we need to target anyway). We’re not trying to win the south, we’re trying to win towns in the south that would be Labour if they were in the north. And that’s much more about engagement than anything else. You need a slightly greater focus on cost of living and housing is a slightly bigger issue than elsewhere, but otherwise the basic orientation of our offer is fine.

    • Alexwilliamz

      I don’t agree that the interests of the north and the south are different. In fact the solution to many problems in the south (house prices, overcrowding, natural resource shortages) have their solutions by moving jobs north or westwards. The interests of most normal people in the country is the same (work, homes, decent standard of living) it’s just that there has been vested interest built up in the wealthier parts of the country which have drawn a number of people in. This is not a north south division but a the conflict between vested interest and the people. It just happens that the vested interests are predominantly based in the south.

      • Chilbaldi

        I agree with you Alex on the main thrust of your comment. The only problem is that a lot of the time people suggest special measures for the south, rather than looking at the wider problem of the decline of other parts of the UK. You’ve identified that a whole country solution is needed, rather than southern centric policies.

        Prime example is the passage in Rowenna’s article: “If anything, worries about the cost of living are stronger in the south because living costs are on average 20% higher than the rest of the country, whilst wages remain low outside of London.”

        Now I don’t want to put words in Rowenna’s mouth, but I’ve seen this line of thought from people before on here. It normally leads down the road that says we need to increase funding for people and industry in the south, not realising that this would only increase the divide between north and south. I’ve seen as much argued by others on Labourlist in the past.

        My thinking here: it’s unfortunate that living costs are higher in the south, and that poorer people suffer because of this. But it is pretty obvious, looking at policy over the last few decades, why living costs are higher. Also, the millions in Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield or Newcastle don’t really care about this when their own cities are in decline.

  • uglyfatbloke

    It might not be a bad thing to abandon the lengthy political tradition of looking after London and the SE at the expense of the rest of the country. Consider the pattern of major construction projects over the past thirty years or so – the Channel Tunnel, redeveloping railway and underground stations, the Thames Barrier, the M25 and other projects that have benefited the whole nation from Dover in the South to Watford in the North. The Thatcherite notion that poverty in the north was a fair price to pay for prosperity in the south was cheerfully adopted by Blair and Brown because they took it for granted that the North of England, Wales and Scotland would always vote Labour.

    • Chilbaldi

      Exactly. There is a current fashion on social networking websites where people poke fun at others who moan about their problem of the day with the comment #firstworldproblems – meaning basically ‘count yourself lucky, others have it worse’.

      I’m tempted to say similar about problems in London and the surrounding counties. The problems faced by the south – the beneficiary of 99% of government policy over the last 50 years, aren’t really the same as other neglected parts of the country.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36910622 Edward Carlsson Browne

      Interestingly enough, the south does not stretch from Dover to Watford.

  • AlanGiles

    There is no doubt that there are tranches of London and the South East with particular problems regarding unemployment and poverty – for example Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, parts of Newham in London and places like Hastings on the South Coast.
    That said we should never forget that there are areas like Merseyside, Wales, the North East who have struggled with these problems for years, and have been blighted by unemployment and poverty for decades.
    We should also, sadly, never forget that sections of the previous Labour government were more than happy to drone on about “benefit scroungers” and even gave littles stories to the tabloid press to that effect (Blears for example)

  • Hugh

    “Labour values …hard work, family, community and neighbourliness.”

    Because Tory voters are dead against hard work, family, community and neighbourliness? If southern voters are unclear what Labour stands for it probably has something to do with the tendency to rely on meaningless platitudes when addressing them.

  • JoeDM

    Well due to the Labour Government’s immigration policies between 1997 and 2010 parts of it seem like a foreign country.

  • ColinAdkins

    Well said. Debunking another myth when I last looked, albeit over a decade ago when I worked for the MSF union, there was higher manufacturing employment in the SE than most other English regions. Just goes to show that us southerners aren’t all a bunch of bankers.

  • markfergusonuk

    That shouldn’t be the case. I’ll be on the phont to our advertisers to make sure any Wonga ads are removed.

  • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

    A timely and necessary message. I’ve been quite shocked since I joined Labour by the casual prejudice towards the South and southerners (of which I am of course one) in the party. When your people so enjoy professing disdain and dislike for others based on their geographical location (not the fairest way to judge people) as I’ve seen and heard, it’s unlikely they’re gonna vote for you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rowenna.davis Rowenna Davis

    Really great debate, as ever, thanks. Let me just clarify a few points.

    @uglyfatbloke:disqus
    @Chilbaldi:disqus

    Saying that Labour needs to pay more political attention to the south is NOT the same as saying that the north shouldn’t have more investment.

    @Alexwilliamz:disqus has got it spot on here:

    “I don’t agree that the interests of the north and the south are different. In fact the solution to many problems in the south (house prices, overcrowding, natural resource shortages) have their solutions by moving jobs north or westwards.”

    This is one reason why I’m in favour of regional banks that work so well in Germany to produce more balanced growth. It’s also why I’m more likely to favour a high speed rail link from east to west in the north than I am from north to south England.

    In short, I believe it is good for the south to have a more prosperous north. With all due respect, I reject @Chilbaldi’s idea that it is a zero sum game, and that everything good for the south has to be bad for the north and vice versa.

    @facebook-100000584193588:disqus @ColinAdkins:disqus @twitter-20543696:disqus

    Thanks a lot, I really appreciate those comments.

  • Sam

    There is a huge opportunity to take advantage of seats where the Lib Dems have been seen as the only credible opposition to the Tories. Many anti-Tory voters in the South will only vote yellow to keep blue out. Reminding them that the Lib Dems have supported some of the most draconian spending cuts this country has ever seen, as is currently being done in Eastleigh, will win support and perhaps even first time Labour seats in the South.

    In 1997 Labour would’ve been competing with the Lib Dems in numourous Southern constituencies, if we can hammer home the message that this time voting Lib Dem is essentially the same as voting Conservative then who knows what can be achieved. Then again I am a blue sky thinker.

  • NT86

    This is an interesting article. There are certainly areas in the south which Labour has strong support locally. Indeed I can see them regaining ground in pockets in Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Herts, Bristol, East Anglia, etc. Eastleigh makes for interesting possibilities too. But let’s be honest, there are swathes of the south like Surrey which will never elect Labour MP’s. Just as how voters in most places of Merseyside aren’t ever going to elect the Tories.

    Britain has become extremely divided and I hate to say it, but the priorities of residents in the most affluent parts of Buckinghamsire differ wildly from the most deprived regions of Greater Manchester. It’s like many nations in a nation. Even in 1997 and 2001 there were still a many seats which were impenetrably Conservative. Be realistic…work on regaining the lost southern seats from 2010 and perhaps heavily target the Midlands instead. Rebalance those in favour of Labour and you probably have a smarter strategy.

  • NT86

    This is an interesting article. There are certainly areas in the south which Labour has strong support locally. Indeed I can see them regaining ground in pockets in Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Herts, Bristol, East Anglia, etc. Eastleigh makes for interesting possibilities too. But let’s be honest, there are swathes of the south like Surrey which will never elect Labour MP’s. Just as how voters in most places of Merseyside aren’t ever going to elect the Tories.

    Britain has become extremely divided and I hate to say it, but the priorities of residents in the most affluent parts of Buckinghamsire differ wildly from the most deprived regions of Greater Manchester. It’s like many nations in a nation. Even in 1997 and 2001 there were still a many seats which were impenetrably Conservative. Be realistic…work on regaining the lost southern seats from 2010 and perhaps heavily target the Midlands instead. Rebalance those in favour of Labour and you probably have a smarter strategy.

  • NT86

    This is an interesting article. There are certainly areas in the south which Labour has strong support locally. Indeed I can see them regaining ground in pockets in Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Herts, Bristol, East Anglia, etc. Eastleigh makes for interesting possibilities too. But let’s be honest, there are swathes of the south like Surrey which will never elect Labour MP’s. Just as how voters in most places of Merseyside aren’t ever going to elect the Tories.

    Britain has become extremely divided and I hate to say it, but the priorities of residents in the most affluent parts of Buckinghamsire differ wildly from the most deprived regions of Greater Manchester. It’s like many nations in a nation. Even in 1997 and 2001 there were still a many seats which were impenetrably Conservative. Be realistic…work on regaining the lost southern seats from 2010 and perhaps heavily target the Midlands instead. Rebalance those in favour of Labour and you probably have a smarter strategy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36910622 Edward Carlsson Browne

      I don’t disagree, but this almost goes without saying. Most of the southern seats we didn’t win in 1997 or 2001 wouldn’t have been won if they were in the north either, because the seats they resemble most are places like Altrincham or Richmond. The vast majority of county seats are never going to make a target list, because we haven’t got more than two wards in the seat we could ever hope to win.

      On the other hand, there is a fairly hefty percentage of primarily urban seats that we won in 1997 and 2001 but where we’re a long way off now. Not all of them are the best seats to target for 2015, but it is a concern that they swung so much more than demographically similar seats elsewhere.

  • Brumanuensis

    “This is idiotic. You know why? Because there isn’t even a clear dividing line between the south and the Midlands”

    I thought the Chilterns was a pretty natural frontier between the two regions. Certainly I was a bit miffed to see Warwickshire (!) placed in the south, in one of those idiotic maps that assumes the Midlands doesn’t exist ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1303291/North-South-dividing-line-slips-southwards-recession-widens-economic-gap.html )

    That said, I agree with most of the rest of what you’ve written and indeed with the thrust of Rowenna’s article. However I think Chilbaldi has a point, insofar as arguments about the cost of living often have the perverse consequence of suggesting that we should focus even more funding on the south, which will likely come at the expense of other parts of the country. It’s a legitimate concern for those of us not from the south. Furthermore, as uglyfatbloke has correctly pointed out, it is a bit galling how much money is lavished on infrastructure in London and the South East. I don’t object to projects like Crossrail, but given that metropolitan areas like the West Midlands could benefit from a much more integrated transport system, it would be nice to have something similarly ambitious up here. HS2 is a start, but doesn’t fully fit the bill.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36910622 Edward Carlsson Browne

      I agree with the complaint about CrossRail. But London and the South are not the same thing. There are many of us in the south who’d like more spent on infrastructure in our local areas – in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, for example, the plan to pay for upgrading the A14 by tolling is going to be hugely unpopular and completely disastrous. I think the best places for integrated schemes would generally be in the Midlands and North because you’ve got bigger conurbations closer together than in the most parts of the South, but don’t forget that there are places in the South – Great Yarmouth is a good example – that have seen equally pitiful amounts of infrastructure investment. This is actually something you could get everywhere bar London to agree on.

      I also think cost of living mostly relates to housing. Inevitably most short-term housing growth is going to have to come in the South, because it’s where housing demand is greatest and because that’s where there’s least social housing and the biggest private rental market. That’s liable to be a job creator in all parts of the country, because construction firms are very mobile. Long-term we do need to rebalance the economy, but that won’t happen overnight and there’s no point concentrating new housing in the North until there is the demand for that housing there.

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