There is no path to government that doesn't run through the South. That's why I'm backing Ben Bradshaw for deputy leader

Labour members in the South don't have the MPs to ensure that Ben Bradshaw is on the ballot. That's why I, a former MP, am calling on the PLP to put him there for us.

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In 1997 Labour won 59 seats in the three Southern regions of England, stretching from The Wash in the East to the Bristol Channel in the West, excepting London. In 2015, we won 12 – an increase of only two on 2010.

For the next Labour leader, there is no route to Downing Street in 2020 that does not go through the South of England. If we are to form a majority government in 2020, than the Party needs, once again, to connect with voters to win in cities and large towns such as Swindon, Plymouth and Milton Keynes, and the suburban areas of Essex, Kent and Suffolk.

The Tories plan to introduce English Votes on English Laws. Once this is part of the House of Commons procedures it will be hard for any future government to legislate for English schools, hospitals and universities without a majority of English Labour MPs. That English majority means winning seats like Basingstoke. The basic question for every aspiring leader might well be ‘what sort of Labour Party could win Basingstoke?’

A party that aspires to be a party of government and govern for the whole nation needs to be competitive across the whole country. At this election, in too many seats in the South, we went from being competitive to “also-ran”. It is perhaps telling that the Tory majority over Labour is now larger in Milton Keynes South – a top Labour target seat in 2015 – than in the supposedly super-safe Tory seat of Kensington.

Labour faces multiple challenges over this parliament, from a recovery in Scotland and recovering ground we have lost in Wales, to holding off UKIP in our northern heartlands. But it is critical for the future of our party that Labour starts winning again in the South. If not, we risk becoming a regional party of special interests, rather than a national party that stands for the majority.

Yet there are few parts of southern England that would not gain from Labour values. Some people are very well off here. Most are not. It’s rural Torridge in West Devon that has the most people not getting the living wage. London commuters get the worst deal from their train fares. Housing is least affordable in Surrey, Berkshire and Hampshire. The South East has the lowest pubic spending and most rapidly aging population to support.

Labour won’t re-establish its base unless it confronts the triple challenge in the South, of leadership, of infrastructure and of culture. But with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, there is a window of opportunity for us. By reconnecting with our communities and grabbing the mantle of effective opposition, we can win back the trust of voters and re-build our relationships anew.

The task is large, but not insurmountable. We came second in 87 constituencies across the region. We increased our vote share in 149 constituencies, and we’ve councils and councilors across the South, from Norwich to Exeter. Many of our councilors in these areas have been at the forefront of doing politics in a different way. This must all be encouraged, supported and rolled out by the Party.

I am supporting Ben Bradshaw as a candidate for Deputy Leader because I think his experience of holding Exeter against the odds is important. He is the only candidate to have won a marginal seat from the Conservatives and not only held it since 1997, but made it safe. Ben understands the South and he understands why so many of us believe we need a clear English Labour offer.

I am now out of Parliament but I am not out of politics – I never will be. Like tens of thousands of Labour members in the Southern regions, I don’t have a vote in the nomination process. Neither do we have Labour MPs who can nominate Ben on our behalf.  I would urge colleagues to use their vote to maximise the number of candidates on the ballot and ensure the contest has the debate we need. Ben’s voice in that is critical to understanding and addressing the challenges we face in Southern England and across England as a whole.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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