A little less Southern Discomfort?
The growing regional divide defines the British political landscape: addressing this major electoral cleavage requires a departure from both New Labour orthodoxy and denial of the ‘southern discomfort effect’.
Research by YouGov has confirmed that while class was once the determining factor in British politics, ‘…the North-South divide has got bigger’ . Whereas the Conservatives lead Labour among all classes and social groups in the south, they are behind Labour in every social group and class in the north. Labour will not secure an electoral majority until it is competitive again in midlands and southern seats.
However, the strategic inferences to be drawn from the research in the 1990s and today diverge starkly. In 1992, many voters saw Labour as a class-orientated party rooted in the past, with little to offer ‘aspirational’ families. They wanted change after thirteen years of Conservative rule, but feared that a Labour government would mismanage the economy.
Today, few voters dismiss Labour as incompetent and unfit for office. There is every reason for cautious optimism about the party’s electoral prospects, but Labour can ill-afford to be complacent.
In recent years, ‘insecurity’ has replaced ‘aspiration’ as the dominant concern of wavering voters. As such, the party will not recover electorally by reviving the core New Labour assumptions of the 1990s:that economic growth would be delivered through supply-side intervention or that government could ensure that the rising tide of growth ‘would lift all boats’.
The combination of such discretionary policies together with globalisation and technological change meant that by the early 2000s, Britain’s middle income earners were being dramatically squeezed.
The climate of risk, instability and insecurity that resulted is highly relevant to Labour’s strategy for electoral recovery in the South and Midlands. The key group of wavering voters are those on middle incomes of £20-35,000 per annum. They saw modest improvements in living standards under Labour, but in recent years pay rises have failed to keep pace with inflation, incomes are more unstable, and job insecurity is widespread. At the same time, middle income families have been forced to absorb greater responsibility for social provision.
This ‘great risk shift’ will not be reversed overnight. It will be necessary to rebalancing the British economy, re-imagining the collective institutions that protect people from risk and ensure a fairer distribution of opportunity and prosperity.
That will require a pro-active industrial strategy in which governments are prepared to shape and structure markets in the public interest. This means investing strategically in sectors that will help to spur innovation-led growth.
This year’s local election results in southern England represent solid progress for Labour. Nonetheless, they fall some way short of indicating that a general election victory is within the party’s grasp. Developing a credible economic model will be fundamental to Labour’s chances. If it does so, Labour can gain a crucial foothold in the south and midlands, the battleground areas on which victory next time will ultimately depend.
Patrick Diamond is Senior Research Fellow at Policy Network and Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. This is an extract from his Policy Network essay: ‘Going south: Britain’s Regional Divide’
Photo: Chalkie Circle
aspiration, insecurity, Labour, New Labour, Southern Discomfort, swing voters