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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38 Responses to “Labour’s universal discomfort”

  1. Shamik Das

    Labour's universal discomfort: by Prof. @philipjcowley on @leftfootfwd

  2. Peter Campbell

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour's universal discomfort

  3. TweetWhile YouSleep

    Labour's universal discomfort | Left Foot Forward

  4. Philip Cowley

    RT @shamikdas: Labour's universal discomfort: by Prof. @philipjcowley on @leftfootfwd <– that's me. It's good.

  5. Sadie Smith

    RT @philipjcowley: Labour's universal discomfort: by Prof. @philipjcowley on @leftfootfwd <– that's me. It's good.

  6. John Rentoul

    Old trick, deployed brilliantly by @philipjcowley Lab doesn't have a southern problem it has an everywhere problem

  7. Alexander Lawless

    RT @johnrentoul: Old trick, deployed brilliantly by @philipjcowley Lab doesn't have a southern problem it has an everywhere problem

  8. Russell Smith

    RT @johnrentoul: Old trick, deployed brilliantly by @philipjcowley Lab doesn't have a southern problem it has an everywhere problem

  9. Philip Cowley

    RT @JohnRentoul: Old trick, deployed brilliantly by @philipjcowley <– Old AND cheap. Sums me up, really.

  10. Philip Cowley

    Mind you, @JohnRentoul sums it up best: "Lab doesn't have a southern problem it has an everywhere problem".

  11. David Bober

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour's universal discomfort

  12. Martin Coxall

    Labour's universal discomfort | Left Foot Forward

  13. Peter Cuthbertson

    Excellent analysis from @philipjcowley at

  14. Greg Stone

    RT @johnrentoul: Old trick, deployed brilliantly by @philipjcowley Lab doesn't have a southern problem it has an everywhere problem

  15. robvance

    No message, rather than the wrong message? Cowley on a national, rather southern disconnection with Labour Brand:

  16. Peter Cuthbertson

    Excellent analysis from @philipjcowley at – Reminiscent of the points made back in 2003 here:

  17. Alexander Norris

    RT @philipjcowley: RT @shamikdas: Labour's universal discomfort: by Prof. @philipjcowley on @leftfootfwd <– that's me. It's good.

  18. Palgrave Politics

    Labour's 'southern discomfort'? It's worse than you think @philipjcowley explains on @leftfootfwd

  19. David Skelton

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour's universal discomfort > Very interesting piece by @philipjcowley

  20. Anon E Mouse

    Philip Cowley – Interesting article. Assuming the government get their way so the number of MP’s are reduced to 500 (why so many still?) and the boundary changes come into play do you know how that would affect your map please?

  21. Shamik Das

    Anon, the map came from the Telegraph – – it’s the best one out there. Closer to the time, if and when these changes take place, I’m sure political maps of the new boundaries will be published.

  22. Anon E Mouse

    Shamik Das – Thanks for that…

  23. Chris

    @Philip Cowley – The coalition wants to reduce the number of MPs to 600 not 500. The boundary changes will reduce the number of inner city seats which generally have a larger population but lower number of registered voters, this will harm Labour mainly which reveals the blatant gerrymandering that motivated the reduction.

    “Why so many still?” – Why do we bother with democracy at all? FFS.

  24. Phil

    @chris Thanks for the explanation (and the FFS), although I think you’ll find it shd be directed at Anon E Mouse, rather than me…

  25. A bag of boiled sweets « Hopi Sen

    […] Cowley writes on Labour’s Universal Discomfort. Summary – Everyone hates us, not just the South. Still, don’t go out into garden and […]

  26. Alan W

    Is it necessarily a good thing for a large proportion of voters to be absolutely sure they know what a party stands for? Surely it depends on whether their view is favorable or not.

    While the 61% figure for the Tories, probably does indicate a sizable and fairly satisfied base, I’m sure it also includes a lot of people who are very sure what they stand for and wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole.

    This could help explain why, despite such propitious circumstances, the Tories failed to win an outright majority at the last election. There may simply not have been enough voters willing to give them a second look.

    Although the lower figure for Labour probably indicates a weaker base (hardly surprising after years of taking its core supporters for granted), it could also suggest that a large proportion of the electorate may be willing to look at the party again, as it attempts to redefine itself in opposition.

  27. Michael Burke

    The trouble with ‘Southern Discomfort Again, is precisely that it rehashes arguments from the 1990s. In partcular, the endorsement of the idea that the 2010 election represents a ‘dismembering of New Laour’s 1997 electoral triumph’ is one-sided, ignoring entirely the unbroken slump in Labour’s vote nationally and regionally throughtout the entire period 1997-2010.

    For example, Labour was already a bad third in the South in 2005, under 1.7mn votes compared to 2.8mn for the LibDems and 4.7mn for the Tories. To take just the South-West Labour lost 32,000 votes in 2010, but had lost 196,000 votes between 2001 and 2005. Nationally, Labour lost nearly 5mn votes from 1997, 1mn of them in 2010.

    Seats won, and office clung onto obscures this trend. 35.2% of the vote in 2005 is the lowest ever for a single party majority. But the authors are right on this point, ‘to rebuild a winning coalition, Labour needs to listen to the voters.’

  28. Geoff Robinson

    Sobering thoughts on whether British Labour should be more left-wing immigration+govt waste=Australian lessons?

  29. Anon E Mouse

    Chris – “Why so many still?” – Why do we bother with democracy at all? FFS.

    So you’ll be voting for AV next year then and not using some lame Labour excuse for voting against.


  30. Policy Network Team

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour's universal discomfort

  31. Chris

    @philip cowley – sorry, lol, it was the new comments system that confused me.

    @Mental mousey

    Surely your against AV, after all didn’t Cleggy himself call it a miserable little compromise. Goes to show Clegg will say and do anything for power, he makes Blair look like an honest man.

    I’m undecided about AV, not that it matters as it seems the referendum has already been lost because the argument that coalition makes for better government is being destroyed by libdem lies.

  32. Anon E Mouse

    Chris – You’ll come up with an excuse that allows you to blindly follow whatever the Labour Party tells you.

    This government is a coalition and by definition a coalition is a compromise. I have no doubt that if the Lib Dems had won the election alone they would have implemented their manifesto promises.

    Of course Labour forced the terminally useless Gordon Brown on us without a leadership debate in their own party after promising the elected leader would serve a “full third term” so I won’t take lessons from a party as dishonest as that.

    (Well done on managing not to be abusive or swearing in your post btw)

  33. The Ground Work « Hopi Sen

    […] we most assuredly lost. We lost dozens of seats. We fell a fifth in the polls, and as Philip Cowley points out, our support didn’t just fall in the South, it fell everywhere in […]

  34. Panic room « Hopi Sen

    […] Phil Cowley has pointed out, this isn’t a purely regional, or southern issue. It’s […]

  35. Freggles


    The voting system is already gerrymandered in Labour’s favour.

  36. On Ed, I was right (and wrong) | Hopi Sen

    […] is more important than I recognised over the summer.  I’m reminded by a point made by Phil Cowley, that Labour is in “Universal Discomfort”: “’s true that the two groups […]

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