Labour’s universal discomfort

The main reason voters in the south don’t think much of the Labour Party is, because the electorate as a whole doesn’t think much of it, explains Prof. Cowley.

Our guest writer is Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham, and co-author (with Dennis Kavanagh) of The British General Election of 2010, just published by Palgrave

Anyone who is sceptical about the arguments in Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice’s Southern Discomfort Again? pamphlet should take a hard look at the raw data on which the report is based. Some of the findings are pretty shocking.

A minority of southern voters (just 42%) claim to know what Labour stands for these days. Insofar as they do have a view of the party it is of a party that is closest to benefit claimants and the trade unions; both groups were mentioned by 67% of southern respondents, more than any other group listed.

Southern voters’ view of Labour’s record was even more damning. Just 13% thought that Labour had managed to improve public services without much waste, whereas 34% thought ‘a lot’ of money had been wasted for moderate improvement, and another 36% thought that not only was the money ‘mostly’ wasted but ‘increased public spending did not improve services’.

And this group fears for the future.  Just 23% of southern voters think that their children and grandchildren will be able to buy a house by the time they are 30; only 22% think their children and grandchildren will be able to fulfill their educational potential without large debts. If Labour doesn’t understand the fears and aspirations of these key southern voters then it will be out of power for decades to come.

Actually, that was a cheap trick. Because the figures I’ve just listed are those for voters from the ’north’, not the south.

Take the question about whether voters are clear about what the party stands for. Just 37% overall say they are. The southern figure is the worst of all – at 32% – but would it really be a cause for celebration if it was instead 47% (which is the figure in Scotland)? The Conservatives score 61% on this measure; Labour are closer to the Liberal Democrats’ 32%.

And it’s true that the two groups southern voters most identify with Labour are benefit claimants and the trade unions, but I’m afraid that’s true of every region of Great Britain. The third group is ‘immigrants’.

Southern voters think that Labour wasted money, but so do voters everywhere. Just one in ten voters thinks that Labour improved public services without much waste. True, the figure rises to 13% in the north, and is as low as 7% in London and the rest of the south, but to focus on that six point difference is to miss entirely the key finding from the survey: which is that voters everywhere – north, south, east and west – think Labour wasted money on a large scale over the last 13 years.

This is not to pretend that there are some differences. On many measures, southern voters are more likely to think badly of Labour, but in almost every case the similarities are greater than the differences. The essential reason voters in the South don’t think much of the Labour Party is, well, because the electorate as a whole doesn’t think much of it.

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