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.