Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Winning in England

Labour trails the Tories in England by 70 seats – the English Labour Network seeks to support activists, councillors and MPs who seek to rectify that, argues former cabinet minister John Denham

The English Labour Network launched this week aims to support activists, councillors and MPs who see the need to win England.

Parliamentary constituencies that stretch from the Lakeland fells to the Cornish beaches will decide England and the United Kingdom’s future at the next election. Many, particularly those clustered along the M62 and those scattered through the Midlands are typical of the large towns that have seen little of the economic dynamism enjoyed by the metro-cities and are less confident that a cosmopolitan, globalised world, works for them. Labour’s incredible surge tide did not rise as high in these seats. And if the tide receded, a lot of similar places that we now hold would be tough to defend.

The political battlegrounds of England

Seats needed to give Labour a majority in England = Red

Seats needed to give Labour a comfortable ‘working majority’ in England = Orange

The excitement of the 2017 election can obscure the challenge that now faces Labour. Different parts of England having been moving in different political directions for a long time. Since 2005, densely populated metro-city areas, and places with large numbers of young people, have been moving towards Labour (even when Labour was losing nationally), but many parts of working class England, in smaller towns and cities have been swinging towards the Conservatives (even if Labour still holds the seat).

The divergence is well-illustrated in Portsmouth. Labour won the university centred Portsmouth South for the first time, but in Portsmouth North – a seat we held until 2010 – Labour is 20% behind. Across the southern cities of Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton and Norwich, the older, more working class, more Leave constituencies have become less Labour; the middle class, young and Remain parts have moved towards us.

The next election will be fought in seats pulled in both directions by these trends. For Labour, victory depends on reaching those voters we used to have but have been losing (and for a lot longer than Jeremy Corbyn has been leader).

The focus on England is deliberate. Voters who identify as ‘English’ or ‘equally English and British’ are less likely to vote Labour than those who say they are British. Labour must not make the same mistake as the Remain campaign and insist on talking only to the British. This is not a matter of flag waving (though flags are good) but of respecting people who are proud of being English, and proud to be from here, just as we respect many other identities. We do not have to concede to racism or xenophobia to understand why some people, lives and communities already disrupted by economic and social change, have also found rapid migration disconcerting.

But Labour must also aim to win England because we cannot rely on MPs from other nations to let us govern. Our recovery in Scotland is welcome but not yet bankable as a key part of a UK majority. And English voters are not going to tolerate a Labour government that uses Scottish and Welsh MPs to impose policies England didn’t vote for. We may have got away with imposing tuition fees against the wishes of many English Labour MPs and English people in 2004, but we shouldn’t assume we can do it again. Labour is still 70 seats behind the Tories in England; we must do much better to have the real legitimacy to govern.

Then there is the constitutional future of England. What nearly all Labour’s target seats have in common is that they suffer from more centralised government than similar areas in any other European country. Labour in England must trash out how we want the balance of power to lie between Whitehall and local areas, and to work out what is best for England, not for Wales and Scotland. At the same time, Labour’s manifesto has promised constitutional convention and a ‘relationship of equals’ with Wales and Scotland. Labour in England needs to work out what voice we want in a future UK.

The English Labour Network aims to be outward facing, supporting activists at every level in making Labour’s case. We want to share best practice in local campaigns, in building an authentic and inclusive Englishness, in celebrating Labour’s work in local government, and in making a case that is both progressive and patriotic.

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John Denham is a former Labour minister. He tweets at @JYDenham

The English Labour Network has initial support from across the party, including Jon Cruddas MP, Shabana Mahmood MP, Liam Byrne MPJudith Blake (Councillor, Leeds city council), Alice Perry (Councillor, London borough of Islington), Vince Maple (Councillor, Meadway council, Sam Tarry (TASSA – personal capacity) Dr Emily Robinson (Sussex Uni), Mike Kenny (Cambridge), Jonathan Rutherford (writer), Polly Billington (former candidate, Thurrock), Paul Hilder (founder of Crowdpac), Morgan McSweeney (Labour Together). The coordinator is Joe Jervis.

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John Denham

was member of parliament for Southampton Itchen from 1992-2015

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