Labour’s performance in eastern England in 2010 was disastrous, with Luton the only bright spot. The swing against the party (seven per cent) and the proportion of Labour seats lost (85 per cent) were both the worst in any region. East Anglia is without a Labour MP for the first time since 1938. However, this was merely the culmination of a long trend. Our losses in local elections have also seen us reduced to a low ebb – in 1995 we had around 1,100 councillors, but now there are only 264.
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 we need to win to gain a workable overall majority, only one region (the northwest) contains more constituencies than the east.
In writing our report, How the East Was Lost … And How to Win Again, we studied the figures and talked to the candidates who had fought seats for Labour in eastern England. Several themes emerged. One was that voters in the east, while not being enthusiastic about David Cameron, did not want Gordon Brown 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 a ‘hollowing-out’ in core areas, a Conservative vote that was energised by some very strong constituency campaigns, and also direct switchers from Labour to the Conservatives.
What sort of policy agenda can recapture the east for Labour? Most potential Labour voters in the east favour ‘tough-minded’ solutions to issues such as benefits and migration. They know we have caring values, but want to be sure that we are not pushovers. They 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 in this growing region, too.
In 1997 Labour performed strongly in eastern England, winning the largest swing outside London, but the reversal of fortune was 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 more dynamic party culture, in order to reap the benefits.
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