The Conservative Party refused to listen to voters and were rewarded with the worst sequence of election defeats since 1832. Labour must not repeat the error.
Any party seeking to recover from electoral defeat has to develop a coherent and compelling analysis of why it lost and what ought to be done to put it right.
For a decade, the Conservative Party refused to listen to voters. Its reward was the worst sequence of election defeats since 1832. Labour must not repeat the error, as it did in the 1950s and the 1980s. It needs to shape a credible strategy that will enable the party to win next time.
Drawing on the Southern Discomfort series carried out for the Fabians in the early 1990s, recent studies have assessed the crippling weakness that Labour faces in Southern England (outside of London) and the steep electoral mountain it has to climb.
In the South and Midlands, where British general elections are usually determined, Labour holds just 49 out of 302 seats, and the swing against it was over 9% in 2010.
We need to understand why the party performed so disastrously outside London and the big cities and why the 1997 coalition unravelled in such spectacular fashion.
The decision to focus on the South and the Midlands might seem misplaced given that Labour performed poorly in other regions, notably Lancashire, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Humberside. Yet this misunderstands Labour’s strategic weakness.
For one, the party already has a dominant position in Northern England, Wales and Scotland in Westminster elections. Even if it does better at the next election, there are not enough seats for Labour to secure a convincing parliamentary majority. The key to recovery lies in the marginal constituencies of the South and the Midlands, in Harlow, Stevenage, Loughborough, Gravesham, Northampton, and so on.
It is true that Labour lost ground among unskilled (DE) voters in 2010 – and we need to confront that fact. But it is also the case that the party will only restore its electoral fortunes when it performs better among white collar (C1) and skilled (C2) voters.
• The Left, “Englishness” and voting conservative 16 Jun 2012
Arguing that Labour should concentrate only on mobilising its ‘traditional’ support ignores the reality that the DEs now amount to no more than a quarter of the electorate, while the C2s and C1s make up nearly half. Giving up on ‘Middle Britain’ would send a signal that Labour was no longer interested in government.
As the polling expert Peter Kellner argued:
“The figures do not support the argument that Labour paid a heavy price for neglecting its core voters; rather they tell us something far bigger about long-term trends and what Labour needs to do to regain power”.
The party needs to recover in the South for political principle, not just electoral advantage. Labour should aspire to be a national party with roots in every geographical and social constituency.
The radical, reforming Labour governments of 1945, 1964-66 and 1997 were the product of broad-based progressive coalitions that united a range of constituencies and classes. Of course, the research findings are relevant to Labour throughout Britain, but they have particular resonance for recapturing seats in the South and the Midlands of England.
That is why the forthcoming Third Place First conference involving party members and trade unionists is so important as we lay the foundations for election victory in 2015.