All the talk is of ‘winning back the south’, but Lewis Baston presents the headline findings from his report on why regaining eastern England is a non-negotiable goal for Labour ahead of a dedicated event on this next month.
Labour’s performance in eastern England in 2010 was nothing short of disastrous. The party was reduced to the two Luton seats on the edge of the region. The swing against Labour (seven per cent) and the proportion of Labour seats lost (85 per cent) were both the worst of any region. We came third in several seats that had been Labour as recently as 2001 or 2005, and overall we were third in 38 seats out of 58 (in 2005 there were 15 third places out of 58 allowing for boundary changes). East Anglia is without a Labour MP for the first time since 1938.
Although disastrous, 2010 was merely the culmination of a long trend – the east saw the second-largest anti-Labour swing in 2005, and our losses of seats started here even in 2001. Our cumulative losses in local elections have seen us reduced to a very low ebb – in 1983 there were around 700 Labour councillors in the region, while now there are only 264 – in 1995 we had around 1,100. In 33 of the 42 councils in the region Labour either has no councillors or a rump of one to three members. Many CLPs in rural areas are moribund.
One might be tempted to respond to these depressing facts by writing off the east as being a no-hope Tory region, but this would be wrong. Eastern England is a key region for Labour and we cannot afford it to become our equivalent of the Tory wilderness in Scotland. Of the seats (using current boundaries) we need to win to gain a workable overall majority, only one region (northwest) contains more constituencies than the east. Without the east, Labour will find it incredibly difficult to win a general election in 2015, and even more so in future – the region’s population is growing and its economic base of small and medium sized private sector firms may be the future in other regions.
When Bob Blizzard, MP for Waveney from 1997 to 2010, and I started discussing the politics of the east of England we both felt we needed to do something. The outcome is our report How the east was lost… and how to win again. We studied the figures, which was depressing enough, and talked to the candidates who had won and lost seats for Labour in eastern England. Several themes emerged from our interviews. One was that voters in the east, while not being enthusiastic about David Cameron, had formed a negative view of Gordon Brown’s leadership and did not want him to be prime minister. Another was that there were big concerns about immigration – not usually racism as such, but more often expressing worry about the impact of immigration on jobs, housing and public services. This also tapped into a sense of ‘fairness’, in that Labour was seen as tolerating the selfish abuse of systems that should work in the public interest, be they migration, benefits or banking. Labour lost votes and seats through ‘hollowing-out’ of core areas, a Conservative vote that was energised by some very strong constituency campaigns, and also direct switchers from Labour to the Conservatives. Voters in the east do not seem reluctant to switch to the Tories if they feel that Labour are not performing well; there may be many voters in the northern cities and Scotland who feel that ‘the worst Labour government is better than the best Tory government’ but there are few of them in eastern England.
There are some deep-rooted problems for Labour in the east. Many people we interviewed felt that if one could pick up many eastern towns and deposit them, without changing their demographics, in the north, they would be solidly Labour rather than marginal or Tory. There is a sense that it is a mostly rural region, and when the Conservatives have taken political ownership of the ‘countryside’ identity and Labour is identified with metropolitan areas, this favours the Tories. The east does not have the industrial working class traditions, or – outside a few towns on the western edge of the region such as Luton, Bedford and Peterborough – much by way of BME population. There are only three seats (Norwich South, Cambridge and St Albans) with huge concentrations of liberal professionals. There are no big cities of the sort that even in Labour’s other weak regions like the southwest can generate solid Labour seats – there is no seat in the east which Labour has not lost at some point in the last 20 years.
What sort of policy agenda can recapture the east for Labour? Most potential Labour voters in the east favour ‘tough-minded’ solutions and attitudes to issues such as benefits and migration. They know we have caring values, but want to be sure that we are not pushovers. They also need to be reassured about Labour’s economic competence and that we understand people’s aspirations – a decent house, a chance to get on, a good education for their children. We need to have some solid things to say about housing and infrastructure, which are particularly important in a growing region.
It is too soon to get detailed about policy, but there are a number of political and organisational steps that need to be taken. One of the first is not to think of the eastern region as a single entity when talking to the public – it has the weakest sense of identity of any region, In reality it is three sub-regions comprising East Anglia, south Essex and the northern home counties, and each of these has different priorities – there is little that connects Watford, Southend and Great Yarmouth. Voters are quick to spot inauthentic behaviour in politicians and we need to develop authentic local representatives of Labour who can be the face of the party in the local media and also ensure that the national party does not end up dominated by the regions where we did well in 2010 and forget about the places we need to be gaining in 2015.
It is encouraging that the party is moving towards adopting candidates in key seats early – this approach helped build the credibility of Tory candidates in the run-up to the elections of 2005 and 2010. The embarrassment caused to the party regionally and nationally in 2010 by the behaviour of two candidates in the east should never be repeated – just because a seat has a large Tory majority, there is no excuse for poor quality control in choosing the people who represent the Labour party. The east also suffers, perhaps worse than the south, from a stodgy party culture of boring meetings, a lack of a comradely welcome to new members and sometimes a lack of imagination and ambition on local councils. The influx of members since the 2010 election is a huge opportunity to regrow the party’s grassroots across the region, but we will lose them if the party’s culture does not change to accommodate them.
In 1997 Labour performed particularly strongly in eastern England, winning the largest swing outside London, but the reversal of fortune was unfortunately temporary. Despite the strength of the Tories in 2010, there is potential here for Labour simply because the Conservatives’ agenda in government harms the opportunities for housing, work, education and public services that the much-discussed ‘squeezed middle’ want to enjoy, and these voters are thick on the ground in eastern England. But we need a strong policy offer, an authentic local voice of Labour, and a radically changed party culture, in order to reap the benefits.