Reclaiming the north

The most important political event for Labour last year was not Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership election but our party losing the general election. And our most important political challenge is now to work out how to win in 2020 – a much bigger challenge than who leads Labour. Jeremy was right to talk before Monday’s meeting of Labour MPs of ‘building a winning electoral majority’ and to say that ‘we are not yet doing enough to win in 2020’.

At the 2015 general election we gained just 30.4 per cent of the vote and lost 26 seats, up only a bit on 2010, and apart from that year our worst result since 1983. In the north of England we largely did well in seats we already held but not nearly well enough in seats we didn’t. Of our 27 target seats we won just seven, and in ‘must win’ seats like Pendle, Pudsey, Rossendale and Darwen, and Warrington South we went backwards.

Without recovery in Scotland – and recent results suggest that recovery will take time – we need to win nearly 100 seats across England and Wales, nearly all from Tories, on an average swing of over 10 per cent Conservative to Labour. So Jeremy’s test of ‘doing enough to win in 2020’ and building a winning electoral majority means mostly winning a hearing and then support from Conservative voters.

So what do we need to do? First, Labour in opposition must be the leaders of the fresh analysis, new thinking and big debate that the country needs. From our totally inadequate care system for the elderly, to the one-sided world of work to the crisis in housing there is a widespread pessimism about the power of politics to change our country for the better. Before the last general election 72 per cent of people thought that who formed the government would make little or no difference to the housing pressures in their areas. At the heart of our political renewal in the 1990s was an intellectual renewal – and two decades on we must now do that again.

Second, to see off the Tories in the north, we need to see off the United Kingdom Independence party. At the general election Ukip hurt us in seats we lost – in Morley and Outwood up 13 per cent, in Corby Ukip took 14 per cent of the vote. Nationally, in two-thirds of the target seats we failed to take, the Ukip vote was greater than the Tory majority. The causes of Ukip are economic and structural at root – a reaction to the insecurity that globalisation and technological change have produced among those who feel largely left behind. Our response must be broad-based and bold: an entrepreneurial industrial policy that creates good jobs; a regional policy that helps blue-collar areas which have suffered the most; an immigration policy that stops the exploitative use of migrant labour; and active trade unions to protect the pay and conditions of workers.

And given the roots of Ukip support in working-class areas are also cultural we need a Labour party active in all our local areas with Labour representatives who can be seen as authentic voices for all parts of the country. This is not a change that can be done to working-class communities, only with them.

Third, we need to show what Labour in power can do. As Labour’s housing lead, I am pulling together examples of local innovation in housing – from the Manchester Mortgage for first-time buyers to Liverpool’s building programme, to the Gateshead Regeneration Partnership, to the new council-owned Sheffield housing company. Labour is now in control of every core city in England – a formidable platform on which to show what Labour values mean in practice. Whatever view we take of the local election results, Labour councils and mayors are vital as a demonstration that Labour in power is capable of changing lives.

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This is an edited version of the speech made by John Healey at Progress annual conference in the panel event Reclaiming the north: How does Labour learn to speak for its heartlands again?

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John Healey MP is shadow minister for housing and planning. He tweets @JohnHealey_MP

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Photo: Tom Blackwell

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