The ‘southern voter': myth and reality

Written by: John Denham on 18 June, 2012
Filed under Democracy

Twenty years ago, Giles Radice’s seminal Fabian pamphlet ‘Southern Discomfort’ shed a penetrating and well-researched light on Labour’s failing appeal in the south of England. Under the New Labour banner, Labour made major breakthroughs in 1997, holding many of those seats until the 2010 election.

Today, Labour has the same number of MPs as in 1992 in the South East, South West and Eastern regions (with more seats to contest). Despite good local election results in 2012, Labour representation in key local authorities lags behind where we were three years before the 1997 election.

Labour’s recovery and subsequent decline is often misunderstood. Inadvertently, the idea of ‘Southern Discomfort’ could hamper our efforts to rebuild.

The problem is the myth of the ‘southern voter’. This ‘southern voter’ is held to have a different view of the world; one that needs a special and particular appeal. It is often believed that New Labour and Tony Blair in particular understood and could reach them. It is assumed that their defining characteristics are being better off, more aspirational, and generally more right wing.

But the ‘southern voter’ does not exist, or, at least, not in the stereotypical way they are usually talked about.

Labour’s particular electoral challenges in the southern regions are not because the voters have a fundamentally different outlook on life.

The demography and geography of the south certainly throws up few ‘safe’ Labour seats which we can win by appealing to only one part of our potential electorate. The key southern seats tend to have more swing voters, so if things are running against us we do particularly badly. (By the same token the relative resilience of Labour’s middle class vote suggests an as yet untapped potential in the southern regions).

Across the south, Labour success relies on our ability to mobilise the broadest coalition of voters, not the targeting of a particular section. That can only be done with a broad and values based appeal that unites many different types of voter.

New Labour knew this in the 1990s and we won. We forgot it in Government. We chose to target a mythical centrist and selfish ‘southern voter’ with the consequence that we lost the ability to appeal across the coalition we had put together.

But doesn’t Labour’s poor performance suggest southern voters are actually more right wing? Not according to the available evidence. There’s not a huge amount of reliable regional polling data, but what we have suggests very similar views on fundamental values. Take these as example (London polling omitted)

  • “The government should make sure there is work provided for anyone unemployed for a year, paid at least the minimum wage. In return, people should be required to take up the work or lose their benefits.” South 42 / Midlands and Wales 45 / North 45 / Scotland 45.
  • “Britain should limit the number of people coming from other countries to live and work here because, on balance, they damage our economy and society.” South 36 / Midlands and Wales 36 / North 35 / Scotland 30.
  • “Society should expect people to work hard, but ensure they have a decent wage and enough income to live a good life if they do.” South 74 / Midlands and Wales 70 / North 71 / Scotland 74.
  • “In general, I think government gets in the way and makes my life and that of my family harder. Overall, it’s part of the problem not the solution.” South 33 / Midlands and Wales 29 / North 27 / Scotland 26
  • “Increased international travel, communications and trade bring real benefits, and Britain should be engaged with the world. But this shouldn’t, come at the expense of pride in Britain and the places we come from.” South 56 / Midlands and Wales 56 / North 54 / Scotland 50
  • “I care about the place I live but it is the job of the local council and the government to provide local services and to improve the area.” South 43 / Midlands and Wales 40 / North 46 / Scotland 44

These polls, taken just after the 2010 election, suggest that there may be some tendency to be more critical of the state, and more resistance to migration. But overall this, and data published by the Open Left project at Demos, suggests the basic values in the English regions and in Scotland have much in  common. They show no less anger at the banks, no more enthusiasm for selling off forests or liberalising the planning laws, or breaking up the NHS, or raised tuition fees, or tax cuts for the wealthy.

Yet Labour does much worse in the south, and the same polling shows the reasons why. Voters’ values may be similar, but their willingness to see the Labour Party as the vehicle for those values is hugely different.

The problem is not the voters or their values; it is how the Labour Party has come across. Southern voters don’t think we stand for them. Too often, the Labour Party simply does not exist as a real presence in their communities. Again, the polling numbers are revealing.

  •  “The Labour Party has a clear sense of purpose”. South 37/Midland and Wales 43/North 47/Scotland 54
  •  “The Labour Party is active in my community”. South 17/Midlands and Wales 32/North 42/Scotland 47

It is these barriers, not the search for a mythical southern voter, we need to tackle.

Firstly, southern voters need to know that we are talking about them. This might sound straightforward, but remember that everything a Labour MP talks about the north-south divide, it says that Labour stands for only one side of that divide. Every time a change in health or local government funding shifts resource towards the south, the knee jerk reaction is to accuse the Conservatives of looking after the wealthy south, irrespective of the social needs we face.

It’s fair enough to worry about localised benefits, but we need to know that the gap between rich and poor is widest in the south and that life on the minimum wage or tax credits is harder in the expensive south. In government we sometimes had national policies (like Better Homes) which were based on an essentially northern view of the issues

Labour needs to develop its story for and about the south. Ed Miliband has personally outlawed north-south divide from his own language. He has encouraged sharp criticism of the rail companies who exploit commuters and the utilities that push up our bills, but we have to do more before it is understood that Labour stands as clearly for the commuter towns where the costs of living is 20% above average as we do for the mill town where wages are 20% below average.

We need to tell a story about how our values will make a difference in these regions where NHS underfunded per head, the housing crisis is worse, more young people go to university, we pay more tax and receive less spending,

Secondly, and equally important, Labour has to be rebuilt as a living presence across the southern regions. Not just in isolated target seats but in every community. We will not win the south unless we are a party of the south.