This month Progress magazine contains a profoundly pessimistic editorial detailing The Stevenage Test. The piece is framed by a picture of a Conservative billboard with the helpful caption “understanding how non-Labour voters think” is the key to winning the next election (fancy that) and bold red letters proclaiming loudly that “Labour performed poorly in the South”. The solution the editorial proposes is to be tough on crime, disregard human rights in favour of victim’s rights and bizarrely to “be concerned with the private sector more than the public sector”. All policies should have to pass one test: should they stand for it in Stevenage?
The piece has some things right. Labour could have, and perhaps should have, polled better in places like Thurrock, Dover and Brighton. Being tough on crime is important across the country, not just in the South. Understanding what non-Labour voters in marginal seats, like Stevenage, think is very obviously a good idea.
But what will they stand for in Stevenage? Are all non-Labour voters in Southern seats foaming at the mouth authoritarian, anti-public sector Freidman disciples? Not in Stevenage they’re not. In 2010 41% of the constituency voted for the Tories, 33% for Labour and 16% for the Lib Dems. That means 49% voted for parties that said they wanted to cut the deficit slower rather than faster and protect the public sector from drastic cuts. The ‘progressive majority’ is in existence here. If Labour was to attract half of the votes of those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 (as current polls show we might), and the Tory vote remained static we would win key seats across the South in Ipswich, Bristol North West, Thurrock, Hove and many more.
According to the Progress editorial, to win in constituencies like Stevenage, Labour must appeal to those who go to work and own their own homes and cars almost exclusively. That wipes out the need to speak to 31% of voters at a stroke – only 69% of UK residents live in owner occupied homes. In marginal constituencies across the South there are deprived communities who need the state to intervene to provide proper housing. The high concentrations of elderly voters in the Medway and South coast marginal seats would benefit from Andy Burnham’s national care service far more than they would from anti-public sector rugged individualism progress is appearing to advocate.
Labour lost badly across England because in government too often we failed to protect the living standards of hardworking people. A report out this week by the Resolution Foundation found that disposable income per head fell in every English region outside London between 2003 and 2008, i.e. before the crash. Whilst Gordon Brown heralded the “end of boom and bust” and we boasted of economic prowess, the pound in people’s pockets was buying less and less. The rapid growth our government helped foster was not spread evenly enough. The inequity of booming profits and dwindling wages angered our core vote.
Taking the votes of poorer residents for granted isn’t just anathema to what our party should be about – it is electoral suicide. The recession, combined with inflation and the rising cost of housing has meant that many in the South having seen their income fall markedly since the last election. If we want to win these voters back we need to present a vision of a Britain where workers are given economic security at work, as well as security from crime at home. We need to be able to tell elderly voters that a Labour government will be able to provide them with dignity in old age. We need to be able to tell families that their children will be able to go to university without being saddled with unfair debt. We need to be able to tell homeowners that their interests are the same as the interests of the struggling family next door, or their elderly neighbour down the road.
Making the case for Labour in places that have fallen out of love with our party will not be easy. However, voters deserve honesty. If we campaign with our values on our sleeves and a vision for a more prosperous, more equal Britain for all, we can win the South and win back the country.