‘Labour can cement its Blue Wall gains by seizing the one-nation, moderate baton’

Steve O'Neil
© jason cox/Shutterstock.com

In so many senses, Labour has found itself in an unexpectedly positive position. From leading by 20-plus points in the polls since 2022 to looking likely to overtake the SNP in Scotland.

A less spoken about fact is Labour looks better placed in the ‘Blue Wall’ than many would have thought possible. Last week, Rushmoor council in Hampshire went red for the first time in its history.

As I wrote back in October, following the Mid Beds by-election, this shows that the Blue Wall is less sturdy than many think. After the political realignment of the late 2010s, there will be future opportunities for council gains, and maybe parliamentary seats.

Yet a new region of England coming into play poses a question: what should Labour say to the South East? As a southerner (who was born in Sussex and grew up in Surrey), and who has spent a lot of time discussing the political realignment, I wanted to offer a view:

1. Labour cares about the South East

To start with the obvious, we need to demonstrate an interest in the South East, show a willingness to listen to its concerns and a belief we can win there. That is not something that residents are used to hearing, but with such dissatisfaction with the Tories, it is something they are more open to than is often thought.

It’s encouraging Starmer has chosen to make his speech today in the South East, where he’s highlighting Labour’s plan to tackle small boat crossings. His approach of diverting funds away from the divisive Rwanda scheme is the right one to seize the one nation baton.

Many friends down south now say to me “anyone but the Tories” when they used to say “never Labour”. So it is good to see local campaigners, like John Gaskell, start to send this message. It may not be unhelpful also to point out that the Labour Party leader is from Oxted in Surrey.

I would like to see us go further. A party that seeks to govern should have a strong presence across the country. We should be talking up the political realignment and telling voters in the South East that there are no longer only safe seats and that we are determined to give them a real choice.

2. Labour has changed

There remains, in my view, a ‘small c’ conservatism in the South East, one that is wary of grand plans and overt ideology. What is needed is a message of reassurance that the party is serious and pragmatic.

This is perhaps the area where Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves’ leadership has been strongest. The reassurance they have provided the country is key to the political opportunity in the region. That should be a key part of the message.

While economic reassurance is perhaps the most important aspect, comfort with the values and symbols of Britain is important in the Blue Wall just as it is in the ‘Red Wall’.

My experience growing up in the South East was of understated patriotism. Subtly demonstrating these values, as Starmer has done, will provide further reassurance to voters who are giving Labour a look for the first time.

3. The Conservatives have left you behind

This is a more awkward message, but I think a vital one. The small ‘c’ conservatism of Rory Stewart or David Gauke is the kind that in my experience appeals in the South East. It is not the alt-right populism of Boris Johnson, Suella Braverman or Nigel Farage. The former Conservative MP for Dover Natalie Elphicke defecting to Labour this week and talking about how her party has “abandoned” the centre ground provides the perfect illustration of this opportunity.

I think a Labour Party that has the confidence to acknowledge why voters once voted Tory but to point out that now it is the Labour Party that offers a moderate, ‘One Nation’ appeal would do well where I am from.

There is, of course, much more that could be said on this topic, on what expectations are realistic, on whether progressive parties should collaborate or on how topics like Brexit, austerity and climate might play.

However, as a start, I think these three messages would give a good platform for building on what campaigners like those in Rushmoor have just achieved.

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