An awful lot of tripe is written about Labour’s disconnection with voters in our traditional heartlands. According to a lazy and insulting caricature, these are industrial cities and towns where Labour votes were once weighed, instead of counted, or where a donkey with a red rosette would always win.
The reality is more complex. Take the two places that formed my politics more than anywhere else: Bradford, where I grew up, and the former coal mining seat of Ashfield which I am so proud to represent in Parliament. Both of them would fit a stereotype of the “Labour heartlands”. But when I was studying for my A-Levels in Bradford, the council was run by the Tories’ Eric Pickles and when I first got elected in Ashfield in 2010 my majority was just 192 votes.
I’m glad to say that the people of my constituency gave me a better margin of victory in the last election but we had disappointing results elsewhere in 2015, not least in other seats nearby – former mining seats, former Labour seats like Broxtowe, Sherwood and Amber Valley – where tiny Tory majorities in 2010 became big ones in 2015.
Labour’s difficulties in our heartlands did not begin with Jeremy Corbyn because the truth is that our support in places like these have been eroding for a long time. It’s a key reason we haven’t won a general election for over a decade. And nor is this just a British problem. Across the developed world, the left and centre-left is in retreat with social democrats in the European Union losing 26 out of 33 national elections since the financial crisis in 2008.
So I have never taken Labour voters or Labour heartlands for granted. And that is why I want to begin a formal project to listen to voters in my constituency. I will give them the chance to tell me what they want from politics and, crucially for me and for the party I love so much, what they want from Labour. I want them to tell me what they worry about and what kind of future they hope can be built for their children. I want them to explain to me why so many voted to leave the European Union. And I want people who took part in that referendum but not the general election to make me understand why.
It’s what I’m going to do non-stop for the next 10 weeks. I know not everyone is as interested in this as I am and if I called a public meeting in Ashfield, I wouldn’t hear from anyone who had anything better to do. That’s why I am going out to meet as many of my constituents face-to-face where they live and work. I am starting on Friday with male construction workers followed by women admin workers at a successful Ashfield engineering company. Between now and mid-March I will listen to teachers, ex-miners, hairdressers, 6th form students, pensioners, small business owners, mums with toddlers, golf club members, non voters, ex-voters and people who would never vote for me.
But I also know this: the Labour Party is not like some dodgy business trying to sell people stuff they don’t want. People share our values: they need an NHS that serves their children as well as it as served us; they don’t want to see neighbours living on handouts from foodbanks; and they believe a fair day’s work should result in a fair day’s pay.
If we are honest with ourselves, we are still working on the concrete policies to make these things a reality. If we don’t have a practical vision of a better country which people believe and buy into we will fail again and again. The ideas we need to rebuild that vision won’t just come from think-tanks in Westminster and Whitehall – or they won’t work if they do. Any project to create a better future for the people had better begin with the people themselves.
But winning their trust and their votes also requires us to address the doubts so many people have about us. It’s dead simple: we will lose again if we don’t do this.
And Labour losing means kids losing chances in life or even going without food. The work that the last Labour government did to lift children out of poverty is all set to be undone by this government. As someone who grew up in pretty tough circumstances in the 1980s, that progress came too late for me. I believe that I – and all of us in the Labour Party – have a responsibility to stop the same happening to any more children. I’m calling my tour “Gloria Listens in Ashfield”. It is what I can do right now to make sure I don’t shirk my responsibility.
I look forward to sharing the results.