‘From the squeezed middle to the shires: How Labour broke through in the south’

Patrick Diamond

Thursday’s election results dramatically underlined how far Labour has reversed the ‘Southern Discomfort’ that afflicted the party for much of the last fifteen years. The concept of ‘Southern Discomfort’ refers to the persistence of the party’s electoral and political weakness in the South of England.

Yet on the basis of last week’s results, Labour has become once again a truly national party with representation across England, accompanied by a remarkable recovery in Scotland and the further strengthening of Labour in Wales.

The party’s performance in marginal seats in the South of England at this general election in particular was little short of remarkable.

Winning Middle England

In the wake of Labour’s catastrophic 2010 election defeat, the late Giles Radice and I co-authored a study examining Labour’s anaemic electoral performance in English constituencies. Drawing on a previous pamphlet Giles published in the wake of the 1992 defeat, we analysed why so-called ‘Middle England’ voters were deserting the party in droves.

Our argument was not that the rest of the country could somehow be ignored. We noted that Labour also performed poorly in 2010 in other regions, notably Lancashire, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Humberside, alongside parts of North-East England.

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Nonetheless, it was apparent that the key to Labour’s recovery and hopes of one day becoming a majority government again lay in rebuilding support in the marginal constituencies of the South and the Midlands, in towns and cities like Harlow, Stevenage, Gravesham, Aldershot, Loughborough and Northampton.

In demographic terms, Labour had to recover votes among the skilled working-class and ‘squeezed’ middle-class who are heavily concentrated in the constituencies of the South and the Midlands.

We argued that the party had to revitalise its political base in the South of England for the sake of political principle, not just electoral advantage.

Uniting the country

Indeed, Labour had to aspire to be a national party with roots in every geographical and social constituency. The radical, reforming governments of 1945, 1964 and 1997 were the product of broad-based progressive coalitions that united a sweep of constituencies and classes. We recognised that if Labour was willing to take into account the needs and views of voters across England, it could gain sufficient support to win next time and become once again the natural party of government.

On July 4 that aspiration has been realised in dramatic form. In the coming days and weeks, there will be a significant debate about exactly why Labour was able to achieve such a remarkable landslide victory.

Yet it did so in good part because the party recovered its position among the voters of the South of England.

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Even among the most affluent social constituencies, there was a recognition that the country as a whole in the last fifteen years had become poorer and more divided, and that social justice and economic efficiency had once again to be viewed as two sides of the same coin.

Meanwhile, Labour’s manifesto was judged to offer economic competence and credibility. It addressed voters profound concerns about the condition of the public services in Britain.

It offered a route to net zero and delivering environmental sustainability. And it afforded new rights to working people whose employment status has become increasingly insecure and precarious over the last decade.

The winning formula

Finally, Labour made itself the party of the United Kingdom Union, pledging to redistribute power and resources to distinctive localities in England through devolution to city-region mayors and combined authorities, alongside the commitment to work constructively with leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This approach proved to be a winning formula, enabling Labour candidates to win in parts of the South of England hitherto considered beyond the party’s reach. To be sure, demographic and social change had a profound impact, as rising house prices and the aftermath of the Covid pandemic dispersed socially liberal and more educated voters from the capital into the towns and villages of Southern England.

Yet to have won so many seats in the bell weather ‘shire’ counties of Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire and throughout Easy Anglia – symbolised by capturing the market town of Bury St Edmunds alongside the political defenestration of the former Prime Minister, Liz Truss, in South-West Norfolk – is a truly historic achievement exceeding that of Attlee and Blair.

The election outcome signifies the formation of a potentially historic centre-left alliance with England at its heart.

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Read more of our 2024 general election coverage:

North East Somerset and Hanham: Can Labour mayor Dan Norris consign Jacob Rees-Mogg to history?

Finchley and Golders Green: Can Labour win back Britain’s most Jewish seat?

Small boats and Tory mutineers: Can veteran Mike Tapp win Dover and Deal?

East Thanet: Inside the battle for coastal ex-UKIP stronghold not won since 2005

Sheffield Hallam: ‘Can Labour’s Olivia Blake hold on in Nick Clegg’s old seat?’

Battle of the bar charts in Wimbledon: Inside a rare election three-horse race

Could Labour take ‘non-battleground’ Tory seats across the South West?

Meet NHS doctor Zubir Ahmed, fighting one of Scotland’s tightest marginals

Brighton Pavilion: As Starmer visits, can Labour win the Greens’ one seat?

Labour wants a new generation of new towns. Can it win in Milton Keynes?

Meet Gordon McKee, the 29-year-old son of a welder vying for Glasgow South

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