Adam Harrison with the latest from the wonk world
One of the most seminal texts in Labour party history – yet one that is unfortunately not heeded enough – is Southern Discomfort, Giles Radice’s 1992 study of floating voters in southern marginal seats who had thought about voting Labour but ended up backing the Conservatives. Radice’s original work, published under the aegis of the Fabian Society, was, at least, influential in its time. Its recommendation for Labour to rewrite Clause IV become a reality a matter of years later while Labour transformed itself into an election-winning machine, bulldozing Tories out of seats long considered their heartlands. In the post-2010 era some of those lessons appear to have been lost. In the year Gordon Brown took Labour crashing out of government, Radice teamed up with Policy Network’s Patrick Diamond to write Southern Discomfort Again, which warned that ‘David Cameron and Nick Clegg wish to destroy Labour as a prospective party of government, constructing a new coalition based on a philosophy of economic and social liberalism which, they believe, has the potential to command the centre-ground of British politics.’ How prescient those words currently ring in the reality of Labour’s present leadership turmoil and puny haul of southern seats in May.
Now Radice and Diamond’s sequel to the sequel has found that by asking a comparator question in 2010 and 2015, it is possible to track how far backwards Labour slipped on economic trust. Can Labour Win? The Hard Road to Power shows how, in 2010, voters blamed Labour for the financial crash; by 2015, they simply concluded Labour had no economic credibility. Such freefall is remarkable for an opposition party and, the authors argue, is comparable to Labour in the 1979 to 1983 period. But it matches the experience of those of us who campaigned assiduously for a Labour victory in marginal seats across the country: there was little love for the Tories, but equally it felt like the bottom was dropping out of Labour’s support.
On the page opposite, Lewis Baston outlines the findings of his own study for Progress into Labour’s southern struggles: Labour-friendly London may be slowly creeping outwards into the rest of the south-east, but the wider south is still relatively inhospitable to Labour aspirations. Furthermore, the south is set only to grow in representation in the House of Commons at the next boundary review to nearly a third in 2020. Baston’s next paper for Progress, to be launched at our West Midlands conference on 5 September, reveals even more dispiriting prospects for Labour in the increasingly tough battleground of the Midlands.
What more formative works might be worth a revival? IPPR’s Condition of Britain, itself alluding to Thomas Carlyle’s 1839 Condition of England Question on the working class during the industrial revolution, allegedly received little more than a cursory glance from Labour’s top team following its launch last year. It had been the culmination of over a year’s work by the thinktank. Too little of its emphasis on early years, care, and new and renewed institutions nurturing individuals and communities made it into Labour’s programme for government. When the party eventually resolves itself to the decentralisation imperative that characterises the direction of the 21st century, whoever is its leader then could yet find much to guide the broad brush strokes of principles they set to canvas and the detail of policy they draw in below.
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