Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Suburban dreams

Philip Gould taught Labour to remember the suburban strugglers. It must now  relearn this lesson alone, writes Robert Philpot

‘To describe him as a pollster,’ suggested Douglas Alexander the day after Philip Gould’s death was announced last month, ‘is like describing Pele as a footballer.’ Although Gould would no doubt have demurred, the epithets which littered his obituaries – everything from ‘the architect of New Labour’ to ‘the man who made Tony Blair’ – rather bore out this assessment.

In the 25 years he served it in various guises, Gould made many contributions to Labour’s slow journey from near-extinction in the early 1980s to political dominance two decades later.

But perhaps the greatest was that he never forgot where he came from. As he put it in The Unfinished Revolution, his compelling account of Labour’s modernisation, ‘I learned my politics where I grew up, around the small town of Woking in Surrey.’ As Gould readily admitted it is not a place which features in the pantheon of Labour folklore: the ‘great northern cities, the Welsh valleys or crumbling estates’; rather it was ‘an unexceptional suburban town where most people were neither privileged nor deprived, but nearly everybody was struggling to get by’.

The anger and frustration that Gould felt with Labour as he watched it crash to humiliating defeat in 1983 stemmed from his feeling that the party had ‘betrayed the people who live here, its natural supporters: ordinary people with suburban dreams’. In place of the ‘sensible moderate policies which conformed to their understanding and their daily lives’, Labour had become ‘enslaved by dogma’.

It was a harsh but brutally honest verdict. There are, of course, competing arguments as to how Labour’s connection with such voters came to be severed once again in 2010 – Gould’s rested on the notion that the party had failed to ‘renew quickly and substantially enough’ – and the origins of this disconnection are very different from 30 years ago. However, the need today to recapture Britain’s suburban and commuter-town voters is indisputable.
Quite simply, they represent the difference between victory and defeat. In 2007, half the population belonged to either the C1 lower middle-class or C2 skilled manual worker socioeconomic groups, against roughly a quarter in each of the upper-income AB and poorest DE categories. And among the C1 and C2 groups Labour fared particularly badly last May, dropping a calamitous 11 points in the case of the latter.

In research on London’s commuter-belt voters for the Cooperative party published this autumn, YouGov’s Peter Kellner drives the point home. Of the 45 outer London and 62 M25 beltway seats studied, he writes: ‘This is where Labour suffered badly in the 1980s and early 1990s, and made spectacular gains in 1997. In 2010, for the second consecutive general election, Labour suffered disproportionately greater losses in the commuter belt than in Britain as a whole.’

The commuter belt is different from that which Gould first began studying in the 1980s. As Kellner’s research underlines, today’s economic difficulties are felt throughout the country, unlike 30 years ago when the industrial heartlands were hit far more than south-east England. And yet it is also clear that the top three priorities which commuter-belt voters expressed – for lower taxes, a better health service and safer streets – and their belief that trade unions exercise too much unaccountable power and act in an ‘extremist and disruptive manner’ present Labour with dilemmas not totally dissimilar from those facing the party in the 1980s. Sadly, however, Labour will have to navigate this territory, and respond to today’s ‘suburban dreams’, without Philip Gould’s guiding hand.


Robert Philpot is director of Progress


Photo: BBC News

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

1 comment

  • Prejudice shouldn’t get in the way of analysis. When you say “their belief that trade unions exercise too much unaccountable power and act in an ‘extremist and disruptive manner”, you imply that this is an important factor. That some voters in East Grinstead say this on a prom[pted question is not enormously surprising. On the other hand the MORI Issues index puts the numbers citing Trade Union/strikes as a concern is precisely * – behind 21 issues which are of concern to at least 1% of voters.

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