Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Southern discomfort on the ground

Southern discomfort is with us again but a broad-brush approach to solving it will only take us so far. Labour failed to entrench its success in the south – opportunities that existed to forge a distinct local Labour offer were foregone in the 1990s and 2000s.

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I notice in the last Progress magazine we appear to be back on focus groups as a evidential source. They may have a value but a recognised failing of New Labour was that it appeared to be blown hither and thither by what its focus groups appeared to be saying. I welcome Peter Hain’s statement that Labour should now carry out a systematic appraisal of the reasons for its worst defeat since 1918. Unfortunately there are elements in the party suggesting that the rank and file restrict themselves to the mechanics of winning elections or in Huey Long’s parlance ‘Bringing the hicks in’. The depth of our current malaise runs too deep for this. It is tied up with the question, ‘What is it that Labour offers that would persuade anyone in the south to vote Labour?’

The voting pattern in a county seat in Camberley, Surrey might be a useful indicator (certainly on the surface hardly propitious territory for Labour). In 1985 I polled 1800 votes for Labour but failed to win the seat. In 1993 Labour won the seat with 1600 votes an indication that in bad times Tory voters sit on their hands and do not vote. In 2001 the seat was lost with 1800 votes. The significant figure is for the last 2009 election when our vote had slumped to just 450. In order to start to rebuild in the south it is vital to know where something like 1200 votes went from Labour largely to the Tories. It should be remembered that in the early 1990s we were on the edge of taking control of both Spelthorne and Chertsey and Weybridge councils in Surrey. Areas like this are now represented as ones to ignore by elements in the party.

I suggest that rather than restrict ourselves to giving priority to winning parliamentary seats again in the southern region (however important that is), we start by rebuilding the party from its local and council base. To do this was have to analyse why we shed so many members and votes in the period from 1993 to 2001 in local government elections. I would like to hazard some guesses as to why when we advancing nationally in the south we were slumping locally.

As the privatisation of housing stock to housing associations proceeded our voters and members began to question why Labour appeared to be supporting the process which resulted in a loss of accountability to elected authorities. The core vote Labour depended on now were unable to link the provision of their housing with a community framework working in their interest. Labour councillors now could not take up directly questions relating to repairs and amenities on estates but were forced to filter them into organisations who were often reluctant to follow up issues they raised.

Where councils were Tory- or Liberal Democrat-controlled Labour questions about poor and inadequate services were dismissed by claims that the greatest part of the rate support grant was being sent to the north. When someone from Oxford and I pointed out that Labour lacked an effective script to rebut this argument we were jeered at by Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell representing an attitude among influential northern MPs As John Denham said at a meeting in Woking on rebuilding the party in the south last week, ‘Every time someone in the party talks about the north south divide the perception that Labour has no role in south is emphasised’. Denham rightly points to people in the south facing a 17 per cent additional cost of living as compared with people north of the Watford Gap. The party appears to have no answer to questions as to why with so many inadequacies in the community and social provision in the region 85 per cent of its business rates were being deployed in other parts of the country. Despite approaches being made to Labour local government ministers to devise ways in which councils in the region could be given the ability to raise additional revenue through things such a mansion tax nothing happened. It is essential Labour come forward with plans to remedy a lack of spending on community and social projects in the south.

In looking for the reason for Labour’s vanishing support there is the psychological argument that having seen the back of the Tories in 1997 our members and voters thought the struggle was over. There certainly is evidence that in 2001 when national and county elections were held at the same time this was the case. What this does not answer however is why Labour failed to engender enthusiasm in its second term through a distinctive message as to why people should continue to work and vote for the party.

Even when we were winning substantial number of seats on many councils in the region apart from Reading, Southampton, Slough, Hastings and Portsmouth we were not physically taking power. There was frustration at still remaining an opposition. For Labour councillors seeking support from our ministers there was often no backing. Contrast this with the partisan support the present environment minister Eric Pickles is giving to Tory councils. From 2001 there seemed to be a myopia on the part of the party about the way the Tories who had been in disarray were using an almost free hand to reinvent themselves in the south to regroup. With this went the feeling that Labour was an alien element in the region and that the Liberal Democrats were the bona fide opposition to the Tories over much of the region. 

The reality the party must address is that in the 1980s we could field a slate of 40 candidates in a borough like Surrey Heath. In May 2011 we may struggle to put up 10 candidates. The region suffers from a low level of trade union membership and as manufacturing industry has declined here bringing a decline in unionised workers who identify with Labour politically. When the expenses scandal broke and so many Labour members from outside the region were involved it increased cynicism and disillusion among Labour members and voters and increased the feeling that Labour was something malign and alien almost from out of space. Labour had failed to identify the real practices existing in many Tory authorities. Labour’s decision to cut more than a million courses in adult education certainly alienated many of Labour’s natural supporters in the region. I have the persistent memory of the morning after the night before the 1992 election when the Tories won again sitting with a group of adult education educators and sharing their absolute gloom. At that time they were our natural supporters. In the light of the present deficit the savings achieved were peanuts. It is hard to imagine Eric Pickles deliberately setting out to offend a group of Tory supporters in a way the cuts Bill Rammell made in adult education succeeded in doing.

Always bearing in mind the carnage following Labour’s defeat in 1979 we should avoid looking back in anger. However Labour in the south is in such a state of disrepair I believe it is vital we begin rebuilding by confronting the errors of our previous ways objectively.


Photo: Chalkie_CC

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Murray Rowlands

1 comment

  • Nice one Murray. Nicola sent this to me & I agree with much of it. The Labour Govt. did indeed screw the south & it’s no wonder we lost votes.

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