Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Eastern promise?

All the talk is of ‘winning the south’, but Lewis Baston presents the topline findings from his and Bob Blizzard’s report on why eastern England is a non-negotiable goal for Labour ahead of a dedicated event on this next month.

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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.

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Finally, Labour did badly in key marginals in May but even worse in seats it lost in 2005. We cannot abandon these places if we are to win next time, says Joan Ryan 

See also…

Southern Front – a way back for Labour in the south

Photo: Gerry Balding

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Lewis Baston

is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit and author of the Progress pamphlet, Marginal Difference


  • Really good piece, Lewis. Much to think about for us Labour folk from the east of England. Look forward to the event.

  • I retired after ten years from the Party’s regional board in the East of England, in part because I felt that the regional Party needed some fresh thinking, and you have certainly provided that – thank you. In particular, I would like to pick up on two points in your penultimate paragraph. First, on the selection of poor parliamentary candidates, I couldn’t agree more, and am a guilty party to this. I chaired the vetting panel that approved one of them; we were in effect forced to, because the straitjacket within which we were operating did not make provision for us to comment on suitability outside the narrow confines of the pre-determined questions to which we were limited by the Party machine. That was bad enough, but now the policy wonks in head office are proposing abolisishing even that, and allowing, in effect, local CLPs to select whomsoever they want. That is a disaster, both because of the abolition of any kind of meaningful quality control, and also from the high likelihood that good quality candidates with a wider perspective from outside the immediate area will be shoved aside in favour of local mediocrities. And that brings me to my second point of agreement with you. We do so need to revamp local parties, and in particular make them more welcoming to new members. My local CLP has started to go through the motions on this, but there’s precious little evidence that they’re prepared to grasp the radical nettles of doing things differently and of shifting the focus of what we should be about to things that actually energise people. The one meeting we’ve had so far comprised the same old (and I mean that very literally) faces playing out the same old stale agenda – and I thought my CLP was one of the more progessive ones! I fully acknowledge that I’m not the person to help shift the agenda – new times call for new people and new initiatives. That’s why I pulled out from regional involvement. But now I’m despairing of geeting anything much done at local level either. Any ideas on how to break the logjam?

  • Very insightful. Its ironic that in Making a Comment we are asked to identify our City ! Its vital that the Labour Party also is seen to empathise with the aspirations of those who have moved into the Eastern Region from London. Invariable aspirational they have ‘adopted’ a rural way of life and wish to preserve it. They have often fled urban living and seek in the countryside a way of life, perhaps faux suburbinisation but there is a palpaple sense of escaping London.. It didn’t help at all for the last Labour Government to want to force an eco town on Bedfordshire by dictat. It reinforced all the stereotypes that all Labour cared about was the quantity of the housing and fulfillment of the plan as seen from Whitehall – a gift to the Tories !

  • “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.” For me, as a new member to the Labour Party, this is the ultimate key to Labour success. “‘the worst Labour government is better than the best Tory government’ but there are few of them in eastern England.” I’m one, right here. There must be more than one of me around.

  • Labour Party had ‘kicked voters in teeth’ Welsh MPs told by constituents By david connop price politics reporter LABOUR “kicked its voters in the teeth”, Neath MP Peter Hain heard when he consulted people on the party’s future direction. The party needed to do more to help pensioners, industry and build personal responsibility, the shadow minister heard. He visited Trinity St David University, Carmarthen, with Llanelli MP Nia Griffith to hear the views of an invited — but not purely Labour — group of South West Wales voters as part of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s “New politics, fresh ideas” consultation on the manifesto for the next general election. Mr Hain said: “As a Labour Westminster government we suffered a bad defeat last May. “We are rethinking what we do and how we take the country forward beyond that.” Pensions were a hot topic. One Labour voter told Mr Hain he would vote for a party which would push the weekly state pension up to £140 a week, as the Conservatives had promised. Mr Hain said: “I cannot see it happening before the election and, with the cuts they’re bringing in, there’s no way they could afford it.” Robert Hitchon told him Gordon Brown’s pension fund dividend raid destroyed final salary schemes. “The bulk of people paying in were your voters and you kicked them in the teeth,” said the 77-year-old from Llanelli. Similar complaints were made about Labour not supporting voters in the manufacturing sector. The MPs pointed out Labour introduced the minimum wage, but admitted the party realised too late in government that it needed to invest more in industry. A non-Labour voter urged a push on personal responsibility so taxpayers did not pay more for children that families could not afford. Mr Hain said later ending capitalism would not get Labour elected, but they should have done more on issues such as regulating banks. “We let people down in some areas last time and we have got to win back trust,” he added Some in Wales are also asking where was the labour party for the last 13 years.

  • It may have been a good idea to look at Peterborough as a place where we did well in the region. There seems to be a myth within the party that this was all down to BAME factors. The relatively good result was achieved by getting our party back into areas we had neglected over recent years whilst promoting the co operative party as a progressive local organization. Most of all it was about being a campaigning organization over several years and not just popping up at election time, supporting local trade union activists who returned that support at election time with resources and endorsements. The boundary changes meant that the large villages of Eye, Thorney and Peakirk notionally conservative were added to the constituency, we did not ignore these but established local Labour campaigns and newsletter were delivered. With revised boundaries (extra con voters) the result was even more astounding with only a 0.9% swing to the Cons and the Conservative vote as a percentage went down. The media tried to make immigration a big issue in Peterborough, which has had 20,000 migrants in recent years. Yet this is one Constituency where the Conservative vote went down by several percentage points. Much of this was down to development of the local Labour party thanks to some financial assistance from UNISON and help in implementing development plans over several years. Our MEP also helped keep the politics alive here with many visits and helping organise events. The local Co operative party provided strategic support and some great political messages on which to campaign. Together we built up contact with voters and an alliance with progressives. Working with PTUC and many trade unionists especially those within Unite, CWU, FBU, UNISON, PCS and the pensioners association. I as the parliamentary candidate had a role to rebuild the party within the constituency so we were able to reestablish a presence locally and were seen as a campaigning organization. We also managed to reintroduce GOTV activities for the local and European elections. The green vote was kept to a few hundred, not much more than they polled at council elections. We got non voters engaged in politics and persuaded them to vote Labour. Back to immigration as a factor: We spent several years busting myths put out about migrants and also took up the serious local issues of housing. I do not know if this issue was a big factor on the day or not but we certainly did not pander to right wing views about migration being put out by the far right and the conservative MP. We simply discussed the issues politely and at times forcefully with the local electorate. If we were losing votes over immigration regionally then our result here in Peterborough was even more outstanding and may be worth analysing further.

  • I became very frustrated during the election by these arguments about pensions and pensioners. They are simple trotting out all the tory press lies. What is very worrying though is how few of our mps know enough to refute them. For instance does the new £140 rate, which is planned for new pensions from 2115, include serps payments in the ‘ regardless of what you’ve payed in’ statement. This would make it very affordable and would hand the election to us because of all the people who wwould lose £80 per week.

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