In October 1992, in the wake of Labour’s fourth successive election defeat, Giles Radice, who is supporting me to become Labour's next Deputy Leader, identified the problem of ‘southern discomfort’ and argued that the party could not win without doing better in the south. He was right – and the problem is even more urgent 23 years later.
Today there are over two million more people living in the south of England compared to when he penned his original pamphlet. There are over a million more people in the south compared to the 2001 election alone. Outside London, the south-east, east and south-west are the fastest growing regions in the country – and yet these are the areas where we are at our weakest. In 2015, fewer than one in five people living in the south voted Labour. It will simply not be possible for us to win in 2020 without winning in the south.
If I am elected as Deputy Leader, I will make establishing Labour as a southern party an absolute priority.
Over the last four years I have been proud to be Labour's regional champion for the south east. In this role, I campaigned with candidates across south – and I'm delighted that so many of them, including Jessica Asato (Norwich North), Mike Le Surf (South Basildon and East Thurrock), Tristan Osborne (Chatham and Aylesford), Paul Clark (Gillingham and Rainham), and Chris Oxlade (Crawley), are now supporting my Deputy Leader campaign. I'm so pleased to have the support of Anneliese Dodds, Labour's only MEP in the south east, and Alan Whitehead, one of our few MPs in the south. I've also made sure the south has a strong voice on my campaign team itself, by appointing Victoria Groulef, our candidate in Reading West, as one of my vice-chairs.
As regional champion for the south-east, I supported campaigns like Third Place First too, because we have to ensure that everyone can vote Labour, wherever they live. We cannot win seats if we do not stand candidates. Of course we want Labour leaders running our local authorities. But we need to focus on winning council seats, too, especially in those crucial constituencies in the south where we might never control the council but need a bedrock of local Labour councillors, as well as in areas where we might never have a Labour MP. We must also support our town and parish councillors who in many parts of the country are Labour's only elected representatives.
I was also a champion for the south in Shadow Cabinet, doing my best to make the voices of our candidates and councillors in the south heard. I do not believe, and have never believed, that voters in the south are somehow different to voters elsewhere. In all my years of conversations with voters at home in Doncaster and voters in the south, it has always been the same issues that come up, wherever you are in the country: the economy, public services, welfare and immigration. But seats in the south tend to have higher levels of home ownership, a bigger middle class, more people going to university, fewer people on benefits, greater numbers in professional and managerial occupations, higher levels of private sector employment, lower levels of trade union membership, and a shorter and shallower tradition of voting Labour.
What's interesting about many of these characteristics, is that they are becoming more common across the rest of the country. As a result, addressing the underlying causes of Labour’s southern discomfort is not just a priority for the south, but for the whole country. So I wholeheartedly support Labour in the south's campaign, and if I'm elected as Deputy Leader I will work with members, councillors, candidates, MPs and our MEP to make sure we reach out to southern voters in 2020. I think there are four important lessons we must learn to do that.
First, it is true that the south does not feature in the Labour party’s folklore in the same way as our industrial heartlands or the Welsh valleys. With fewer MPs and councillors, our organisational infrastructure is weaker. As a result our vote is less resilient, and there are more swing voters in the south. That is why it is so important we contest every by-election, fight every council seat and ensure that wherever you live you can vote Labour. We must make sure that all of our CLPs in every part of our country get support. How often do Labour members who raise money and support the party feel "No one cares about what happens here, because we aren't a key seat?" I want that to change. That means equipping our staff with the skills to help develop community campaigning in different types of seats, and empowering all regions to develop policies and priorities that fit their local area, alongside our national campaigns.
Second, middle-class voters now make up a majority of the electorate. By the end of this decade nearly half of people in employment will be in professional or managerial positions, up from just over a third in 1997. Of course, no one can deny that at the last election we lost significant support in our heartlands and among traditional Labour voters. But we have to be honest, too, that the days of winning by turning out our core vote, if they ever existed, are now gone. What it means to be working class is changing too. More people work in Indian restaurants than in coalmines. Today’s working class is more likely to be female and to be working part-time in the service sector.
Third, decent public services are in the DNA of the Labour party. But private sector employment already accounts for nearly 80 per cent of people in work, and with the contraction of the public sector in coming years this proportion is only likely to increase. At the next election, people must know that Labour stands for decent public services and a strong private sector creating jobs and supporting growth in our economy.
Fourth, the right to work is at the heart of what Labour has always stood for. Labour was founded by working people, for working people. For us, unemployment is not just bad economics, but morally wrong. To win in 2020 we have to win back working people. So while we campaign against the injustices of the government’s welfare reforms, we must also speak to the experience of many people in poor quality, low-paid work, with limited power or control in the workplace or over their career.
Ultimately, winning in the south is about more than narrow, tactical, electoral calculations. Every radical, reforming Labour government has been the product of broad-based coalitions, with roots in every part of the country and all classes. We must aspire to be the same.
This article first appeared on http://www.labourinthesouth.co.uk/