Friday, 27 August 2010

Deep red in the deep south: how Labour can win back middle England

Labour did appallingly in the south of England. In the south east, south west and eastern England combined, it won 10 seats. There were 197 on offer. Holding the 32 seats it lost in these regions in 2010 would have made it the largest party instead of the second largest party. Moreover, in a three party race, it got a smaller percentage of the vote in the south east and the south west (in 139 seats) than the Conservatives managed in Scotland in a four party race (in 59 seats). Fewer than one in six voters in the south east and the south west voted for Labour. This was a near extinction level event.

How can Labour win back support in the south? Nick Palmer challenged me to come up with some policy prescriptions. This is very much outside my sphere of expertise, but that’s never stopped me before. I can at least identify the problem.

The problem is not really one of different attitudes. The southern English are not some alien species. Just like voters elsewhere in the country, they are concerned about transport, schools, housing, crime and immigration. And above all, the economy. The problem is more one of different levels of earning. Someone on a good salary in northern England would find it very average in London. But Labour has spent 13 years gearing its policies in the main on national averages without any real thought of what that is doing to the political consensus in southern England. On 6 May 2010, it had payback time.

So what is the problem? Well, in the south, Labour is seen as the party of the very poorest at the expense of the not very well-off. The poorest support this and a fair body of the middle classes support this, but the modestly off feel betrayed. “Modestly off” in southern England can mean a wage which sounds very good in northern England. Labour needs to rebuild its coalition of the many.

Where to start? Here are a few possibilities.

1. Treat benefits as a safety net, not a way of life

Labour sees its mission to help those at the bottom of the pile. That is a noble calling. But for too long it has concentrated on squalor, disease and want and paid insufficient attention to the other two giant evils: ignorance and, especially, idleness.

Labour should be thinking about how it can encourage a positive attitude to work and self-betterment. Nothing infuriates those on lower and middle incomes more than seeing those on social security living in relative comfort without having to work (whether or not they have a good reason for not working), while they have to slog their guts out, pay taxes and get next to nothing back. This is particularly a problem in the south of England where wages are higher and those on lower incomes by the standards of the region often do not qualify for support.

There is a tendency of many on the left to see a life on benefits as a regrettable life choice, but a life choice available to all nonetheless and one that should be supported. Labour needs to find language – and policies – to make it clear that no one should be spending their lives on benefits and to find ways of imposing consequences for those that seek to do otherwise. If Labour wishes to defend the social security system from challenges, it is going to have to show that they benefit the deserving poor as well as the undeserving poor.

Labour adopted a less focussed approach to tax credits in order to build a consensus in favour of them and it was largely successful in this. If benefits were paid at a lower level but further up the earnings scale, it would broaden the basis of support for them. Or if they were stopped after a given period. Or if people had a given allowance of benefits to draw on during their lifetime. Or, to be specific, if child benefit was restricted to a given number of children (two, perhaps). Labour got a much harder edge on crime under Tony Blair and that did it absolutely no harm at all – it now needs to do so on benefits.

A very good example where Labour needs to rethink is on housing benefit. Campaigning against introducing a cap on housing benefit at £1600 per month in order to keep the social mix in Westminster Council is not calculated to improve Labour’s standing with someone living in Essex or Hertfordshire who is earning £20,000 a year before tax and having to commute into central London every working day. It gives such voters the impression that Labour believes that to the very poor nothing shall be refused, while the ordinary voter is just a cash cow to support the idle poor. You can argue about the rights and the wrongs of this perception, but that’s the perception that many former Labour voters have.

This leads me onto my next point:

2. There’s more to housing than housing benefit and social housing

Governments of all stripes have left the development of housing in Britain in recent years to the private sector in the main, with limited initiatives to support social housing through housing associations and otherwise to support the poorest with housing benefit. There have been attempts to link approvals of developments with the provision of minimum levels of social housing or key worker housing but they have had limited success. And this overlooks the fact that the problem is a general housing shortage for those on lower and middle incomes, not just those people who do the jobs that are generally regarded as most socially useful.

The problem is not particularly the availability of land. London is the least densely populated major city in Europe, yet has the most pressure on accommodation. This pressure has forced many people way outside London to commute in, placing pressure in turn on smaller towns. Similar phenomena can be found around other larger cities.

Of course, money is going to be in short supply over the next few years, so massive public house building projects are probably not on the agenda. Fortunately, I have identified a popular way in which that might be overcome at relatively little public cost but with public benefit. It draws on the Conservative Big Society idea, but what is politics for if not for stealing your opponents’ clothes? In any case, that idea draws on co-operativism, which is a Labour idea. It’s time to reclaim it.

It would be relatively cheap for the government to sponsor Property Co-operatives. Membership of these could be restricted to basic rate taxpayers (though I’m not sure any restriction would be necessary). Groups of 20 to 40 couples would sign up for plots of land on which medium-sized blocks of flats could be built (I’m a great fan of the courtyard model that is used on the continent, which I know from experience works really well). A Government agency would buy the land initially and a co-operative with a representative of that agency and elected members of the group would oversee the development. At the end of the process, each couple would buy their flat based on the cost of the land and the development rather than at market price, but in the normal fashion with a deposit and mortgage. The subsidy would primarily be in the timing of payments rather than in the buildings themselves. Of course, the Government would be well-placed to lean on lenders to offer decent mortgage terms to suitable applicants.

Perhaps Labour could call upon one or two of its architect supporters to come up with a few template designs (with naming rights). No doubt groups would vet each other to make sure that they got on with their neighbours, but that will help ensure that the idea would take flight and that the flats were seen as desirable rather than a refuge for the benighted.

This is all unashamedly petty bourgeois. But it would help alleviate pressure on the housing market at all levels, it would provide construction workers with work, it would improve the housing stock and it would show that Labour was again interested in the aspirational. And it would do so relatively cheaply. That’s not a bad start, I’d say.

3. Extending the approach

Ordinary workers in southern England are not short of things to worry about. For starters, the commute to work is usually stressful and the local schools are patchy in quality. Labour is often perceived to have been captured on these subjects by the producers (the train drivers and the teachers) at the expense of the interests of the consumers. Tony Blair was adept at picking the right fight with the unions to reassure the public that he was no one's pawn. The next Labour leader will need to do the same. He (I'm assuming that it won't be Diane Abbott) will come under a lot of pressure to support the unions in any future such battles. He will need to disappoint the unions at strategic moments, especially on education. It would be no bad thing to identify policies to improve the quality of teaching and to make it easier to get rid of poor teachers.

But the last area I want to touch on, and one which no Labour leadership candidate has yet addressed, is going to be hardest for Labour to swallow:

4. Cuts

The word "cuts" means very different things to those in north eastern England and Scotland and those in southern England. In north eastern England and Scotland, it means job losses as well as loss of benefits. There is no upside. In southern England, cuts are the alternative to tax rises. The southern English have got used to Labour seeing them as the paymasters for their social projects, with the associated jobs largely exported to areas far from them. For many ordinary workers in the southern half of England, the benefits of benefits are perceived to be outweighed by their costs.

Labour decisively lost the argument in the south of England on the economy: the expectation here is that we should cut. And Labour accepted before the election that cuts would be necessary, though it neglected to identify any. Since the election, it has opposed just about every cut suggested. This may well be popular in its heartlands, but in southern England it is just confirming the impression of profligacy.

If Labour is to fight back, it cannot carry on suggesting that all cuts must be opposed. It must start identifying cuts to support - preferably by reference to some form of test. It needs to rebuild its credibility on this front before it can start suggesting with authority that the coalition has got the balance between cuts and tax rises wrong. It also has to stop talking about tax rises. While that plays brilliantly with its base, it simply reconfirms the image of Labour as a tax and spend party. Right now, it's turning back to the 1980s. That is not an election-winning strategy for Labour.

All of this is very much in the nature of a saloon bar analysis. I have no underlying data to confirm this and no doubt focus groups will provide much more useful ideas. But perhaps it's something to think about.



Richard Nabavi said...

The trouble is, antifrank, that your suggestions 1, 3, and 4 wouldn't really give voters reasons to vote Labour, rather than Conservative or LibDem. The housing idea is interesting, but would it appeal to the big-state instincts of Labour?

Also, I'm not sure ou are right when you ascribe the difference between the South and the North to differences in salary. Many people in counties such as East Sussex are not well off, but these seats are mainly solidly Blue, with pockets of Yellow. I think it is more a cultural difference than a salary difference - to do with aspiration and social mobility in the south, and the strange Thatcher myth in the North.

Perhaps the question should be turned around: not why did Labour do so desperately badly in the South, but how on earth did they do so well in the North? Can they rely on the Conservatives not making inroads there as well?

Anonymous said...

Might it also have something to do with the fact that the southern English middle classes are naturally more small-c conservative? As long as the Labour Party contains people who are militantly against the monarchy, the C of E and other traditional institutions it will continue to have limited appeal down here.

runnymede said...

Richard N - the Nth/sth divide predates Thatcher; it's more a cultural divide relating to the pattern of industrialisation and the legacies of that including unionisation etc.

Alastair said...

Richard Nabavi, I have been thinking about your flipped-round problem too! More to follow on that shortly.

Anonymous said...


It seems to me that Tony Blair's election success was mostly due to him being a nice chap and his success in portraying his party as a collection of "nice chaps" (of both sexes).

Labour had been tainted by the thuggishness of communism & union demonstrations and the open displays of a unique hatred for Mrs Thatcher personally.

Disagreeing with a Government's policies is one thing. Public displays of such terrible venom are quite another.

The underlying aim of the communists was to overthrow the UK's democracy. The protests about the Conservative Government's policies were acknowledged attempts to overthrow the elected government. It was hard for people to discern the difference. It took years for Labour to rid itself of this shadow; Mr Blair was the person who inherited the prize.

I believe that Labour's problem in being seen as economically irresponsible, however important, was a secondary matter then and may well have been secondary this time.

Labour came to power promising to clean up politics after a mud-slide of Conservative sexual & financial sleaze. What they delivered was thuggishness on the personal scale that matched the social thuggishness of earlier decades. Being on the personal scale, it could be hidden behind the spin.

I don't see why these issues should have a north-south divide any more than anything else. But speaking as a southern person who would very much like to be able to give my vote to Labour, the real question is: Why on earth does the Labour party attract (and keep) such ghastly types as this?

Dave B said...

I think Labour will have a problem with their 'meddling' habits.

If the coalition government lasts long enough to reduce the number of form filling interactions required by HMG, the relief of that alone should win them votes.

Speed cameras was a good start.

Dave B said...

Re: housing co-ops
The "Commission on Co-operative Housing" produced a policy suggestion report that might be of interest.