When the US bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks he replied “because it’s where the money is.” Political parties need also to be looking “where the seats are” and examining reality rather than falling for mythology.That is why it’s worrying that many commentators on the next General Election take for granted the working assumption that Labour’s “safe seats” are in the North and Midlands and the contested area is in “the South.” There is also a sub text that we must adjust our policies and presentation accordingly although it often seem more to fit the policy preference of those arguing the case rather than actual views of voters in the New Towns or on Thames Estuary and orientated towards the fixations of those who live in the six London Boroughs and Oxbridge that voted yes in the AV referendum.
One of Tony Blair’s key insights was the need to present Labour as a National Party able to reach right across the country and in particular to connect with aspirational voters in the South as well as the North. The Party responded with organisational moves to establish a presence through ’Operation Toehold’ and at Party member level, members including myself got active in ‘Third Place First’, refusing to accept the Lib Dems claim to be the progressive alternative to the Tories in the South. In 1997 this came together and in constituencies such as Hastings Labour rocketed from third to winning the constituency (incidentally in Hastings the Party organisation is still in fine shape holding power on the Council with 23 Councillors to 9 Tories).
So both for electoral success and for having a true identity as a National Party winning in the South is important. However, this must not become an unbalanced approach which neglects the North and Midlands.
Last week the Commons considered the arcane issue of Local Government finance. A dry and complicated subject, but one of huge impact as this Tory led Government shifts billions of pounds from the North and Midlands to their own heartlands in the South. Andrew Lansley is proposing to do the same in health by giving increased weight to age. So industrial areas such as the Black Country with lower life expectancy will lose out to pensioner dominated Eastbourne. It is morally outrageous, but it may also be bad politics and a strategic mistake for the Government.
The Government have also clearly indicated that they have accepted the same stereotype as daily announcements demonstrate their distaste for the North and Midlands and they have clearly fallen for the Oxfordshire dinner party, Surrey saloon bar stereotype of them as subsidy dependent regions. Unfortunately for the Tories the voters there have started to notice, as the recent Council election results show.
The assumption that these are homogenous groupings is wildly at variance with reality, as anyone on the ground is aware. But also it is a miscalculation of where the seats are. Of the seats that Labour lost in 2010, it’s true that there are 24 in the East and South East and 7 in London and 8 in the South West and they are important although by no means all similar.
However, they are still dwarfed by the 26 seats in the Midlands, 27 in the North and 4 in Wales. A major campaign by the Party to defend the position of the communities North of Oxford would not only be morally right, but also politically advantageous. It would place the Tories and Liberals on the back foot going into the next election. So while rebuilding in the South is important and welcome, the Party must also look North.
This post forms part of the Labour’s Next Majority programme.