What is Labour’s Southern message?

Vote Today outcard in Crawley, 2013This article first appeared on LabourList.org on Wednesday 5th June.

When Ed Miliband set out his vision of One Nation Labour he couldn’t have been more clear: A Labour Party of the South as well as of the North. Our job on the Southern Taskforce was to flesh exactly what that ‘Labour of the South’ would actually look, feel and sound like. Of course the immediate priority is to win the southern target seats we need for Labour Government, but we must hold to a much bigger vision than that.

For too often the Party has allowed itself to believe that there are only a few areas that might support us. Our southern message has either sounded like a watered down version of our northern message or just been part of a broad national story, devoid of reference, language and living examples from our regions.

Our job has been to change that. To say, with confidence, that there is a case for Labour in the south which does not depend in any degree on the reasons why other regions or nations might vote Labour.

We start by listening. Far from being a bedrock of right wing values, we found that southern voters share much the same spread of views on the big issues as voters elsewhere, including those who vote Labour in large numbers. It’s not Labour’s values that are out of place; the challenge is to convince people who have never voted Labour that we are the best vehicle to deliver the values we share with them.

We can’t suggest it is all grinding poverty – although there are more children in poverty in the three southern regions than in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined. There are families and communities who enjoy the prosperity that goes with doing well in some of our most prosperous regions and their links to London.

But millions of hard-working families rightly don’t feel they are sharing fairly in that wealth. In coastal communities from Cornwall to Thanet and to Yarmouth, wages are below national averages, but living costs above the national average. Life here is as tough as anywhere. In the commuter towns like Bedford, Harlow and Crawely, once synonymous with suburban prosperity, higher London wages are sharply eroded by house prices £100k or more above northern cities and £4000 fares to get to work are not uncommon. In the same towns, locally employed people are often on below average wages.

It’s hard enough to get a fair deal without the other pressures on southern communities. International migration is a talking point everywhere, but in the last ten years even more people moved into the southern regions from the rest of the UK. No wonder people feel the environment, housing, infrastructure and services are under pressure.

These are regions where livelihoods for most depend directly on the private sector. More people here set up their own business, or work for small employers. Our exporters more than any outside London, help the UK pay its way in the world.

The Coalition parties gain most of their support from the three southern regions yet its striking how little they’ve done for the voters who put their trust in them.  They’ve set back efforts to close the gap between those doing well and those lagging behind, weakened the power of towns and villages to deal with the challenges of rapid change, and done little to support the south’s crucial businesses. The One Nation values ‘That Britain should work for everyone, not just a few’. ‘Britain is always stronger when we can all play our part’. ‘Our economy is always more successful when it works for all working people’, could have been written just with southern England in mind.

It’s Labour’s argument for building affordable homes, reforming the banks system to support small business, tackling the companies and failing markets that are driving up living costs, arguing the case for living wages and for sensible controls on migration and labour market abuse, and for tax fairness in these tough times that can have most to say to southern voters.

Labour can be confident that our values are shared by millions of southern voters who might not have voted for us before but are open to doing so in the future. Our message is rooted here, developed by people who live here, and whose families and futures are here.