How can Labour win England again?

A new book provides a useful starting point.

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Histories are written by the victors. Not only true of wars and dynastical struggles, it is also true of elections, where it is the winning candidates and re-elected MPs who are left to tell the tale of elections that saw many colleagues defeated in their own local contests.

This collection of essays in Labour’s Identity Crisis, edited by Tristram Hunt, is powerful because not just because it addresses an important subject of Labour’s identity and the English, but because it does a rare thing – gives an equal voice to those who weren’t successful in the last election as well as those that were. From Suzy Stride in Harlow, to Oliver Coppard in Sheffield Hallam to Michael Taylor in Hazel Grove near Manchester, these candidates were on the sharp end of Labour’s brand and message failure. If as a party we are to improve our reputation and offer to the public in order to win again, it is these voices we most need to be able to identify and redress our previous failure.

The book is rich because of the diversity of contributions. From metropolitan Ealing in West London, to thriving and self-confident Exeter, to football mad Portsmouth, uniting around their team even while the town struggled against the decline of the ship-building industry, the variety of circumstances and demands of all these places gives us a true patchwork picture of the England that Labour needs to reconnect with.

Last year in England we polled 31.6 per cent of the vote (higher than our national share of 31.2 per cent) and won 39 per cent of seats, a gain of 15 since 2010. But this hides a deeply mixed picture across the country. Our extremely high vote share in London of 43.7 per cent, masks the deep lows in others parts of southern England – where we polled just 17.7 per cent of the vote in the South West, and 18.3 per cent in the South East. Last year Gloria De Piero and I produced analysis that showed Labour did well in city and urban areas and not well enough in towns and suburbs. What's more there was clearly deep disaffection with Labour in much of rural England. 

The feeling of being “left behind” – whether that’s left behind Scotland or behind the progress of the cities such as London – is apparent across many of the chapters of the book. In the new town of Harlow “aspiration” means moving out of the town, the seaside ports of Rochester and Strood, and Portsmouth have lost their main industries and the accompanying jobs, and Wigan has lost its unifying Labour Club and gained social and economic uncertainty that challenges the town’s very identity.

This sense of detachment between some of these places and the Labour Party doesn’t just stem from the last six years of opposition. Suzy Stride and Jacob Quagliozzi argue that the last Labour government was too city focused as cities were regarded as the biggest potential spurs to growth.

We did much good in inner cities that we should be proud of. I represent a richly diverse inner city and my constituents know the benefits of investment in housing, schools and social programmes that was the result of the Blair/Brown Labour government. But as a party we should heed what Stride and Quagliozzi point out, that the poorest neighbourhood in the country is not in Hackney, it’s Jaywick, Clacton, and 57 per cent of those in poverty live in the suburbs, not the inner city.

There’s much factual evidence behind the locally held idea that communities around England are being left out of progress. The most recent 2015 deprivation statistics for England showed that of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, 83 per cent were also the most deprived in 2010. These communities have indeed been left behind. The figures also show that what progress there has been is often city focused. Some of the few places which have moved out of the “most deprived” list since 2010 are the London Boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Haringey. There is still much poverty and deprivation to tackle in England’s cities and urban conurbations, particularly northern ones such as Salford and Hull, but as we channel our fight for social justice, suburbs and small towns must not be overlooked.

In addition to some stark warnings from some of the case studies in the book, there are some model examples of how to win. Ben Bradshaw defied regional gravity in the South West by winning his Exeter constituency for the fifth general election in a row through local positivism and relentless campaigning. In his words he “ran a highly local campaign and tore up the national script”, offering instead a positive, proud vision of Exeter, which included tackling its problems, but being constantly positive in message. Jamie Reed held his seat of Copeland “England’s most remotely accessible constituency from Westminster” in 2015 and again emphasises the positive, ambitious character of his community that has in recent years reshaped itself from a deindustrialised collection of towns and villages into ‘Britain’s energy coast’, providing thousands of new jobs and holding big hopes to provide a large portion of Britain’s energy in the future.

Localism is a constant theme throughout the book, from local issues, to local identity to local autonomy. It’s obviously important in elections, where clearly targeted local campaigns and strongly embedded candidates can overcome a nationally weak party. It’s clearly also important socially and economically – if communities can carve out a USP for themselves, particularly if they’ve lost their historic industries, that provides a basis for growth and optimism. 

What the book does clearly show are the contradictions and competing demands of these different places all grouped under the heading ‘England’, that any successful Labour Party will need to deal with. The demands of metropolitan, diverse, part-deprived, part wealthy, Ealing, “the Queen of the suburb”’, are very different to the communities suffering from post-industrial decline such as Portsmouth and the Medway Towns. We must find a way of reconciling them in our policy platforms.

As with many books about the English this collection of essays is not short of quotes from that great English author and socialist George Orwell. Another of his great quotes, not included in any of the essays is that “progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing”. The gulf between some of these English towns and our Labour party sometimes feel too large to bridge, but bridge it we must. Many of these towns desperately need a Labour government, and we need their votes if we are going to form one. Progress can happen, and it might be slow, but hopefully the results will not be disappointing.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South.