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The Only Way Is Burnham: Two Essex Candidates on the Labour Leadership

02/06/2015 13:01 BST | Updated 02/06/2016 10:59 BST

We have just come through a bruising and sobering election in South Essex that many of us who were actively engaged in local politics warned the party was coming. Ukip were taking votes from Labour in such a major way it was bound to cost us key marginal constituencies and it did.

As two candidates who are born and bred in Essex and who have just totted up over 11,000 Basildon and East Thurrock doorsteps in two years between us, we are pretty well placed to discuss what Labour needs to do to change in order to win back "Essex Man and Woman".

"Essex Man" refers to men and women in our part of the world who prioritise home ownership, family, an easy commute to London for work and a quality of life that allows us to work hard and play harder. Labour understood this in 1997 but were nowhere near understanding this in 2015.

Our appeal narrowed which led to us reducing our centre of attention. We were armed with policies that didn't do anything for large swathes of our electorate and it felt like Labour was still on trial. It was as if the last five years hadn't happened. The South Essex public was still fixated on Blair, Brown and the "economic chaos of the two Eds" rather than the Coalition.

Voters had a deeply held belief that Ed Miliband was just an academic who didn't get their life. There was rarely anyone on television from the Labour Party who had an Essex accent (or indeed any regional accent), talking like them, and convincing them we were on their side. Emotional connections, accents and backgrounds all matter.

The image of a remote "metropolitan elite" running the Labour Party from the city was clearly set in the minds of many South Essex voters. We were totally irrelevant when it came to them deciding who they were voting for. Instead it was a choice between the Tories and better the devil you know and Ukip who positioned themselves as the change party. Just hours before the polls closed in Basildon, we found ourselves talking to a lady in Pitsea who was a civil servant but was about to head to the polls to vote Conservative. We couldn't convince a public sector worker, who herself had had to take a pay cut on top of the pay freeze, just to stay in a job, that our building the school that her daughter had gone to, did not cause global economies to crash. Cameron and his spin had won.

It was heartbreaking. A heartbreak that was probably only compounded by the fact that the next door we knocked on was that of a Metropolitan Police officer who said he wasn't voting for anyone because Labour had been "useless" at countering the Tory "butchering" of the profession he loved.

The South Essex public also didn't buy the sound bites and certainly didn't know what they meant. Phrases that actually resonated with voters such as 'the squeezed middle' were replaced with the much blander 'A Better Plan for A Better Future'. People in South Essex have a pretty sharp wit and regularly took the 'you-know-what' out of us as candidates for presenting this to them, followed by an indication of where exactly we could shove our "Better Plan".

That is why whatever happens in the next five years, no Labour leader should look at voters in South Essex and routinely describe anyone here who may be experiencing tough fiscal times as 'poor' or one of 'those at the very bottom' as Ed Miliband so often used to do.

South Essex people want a prime minister who recognises that our desire to individually get on and succeed and for our families to get on and succeed is not selfish but natural. That is why we now need a Leader that recognises that Labour has questions to answer on welfare, immigration and especially on our economic competence. But we need distinctive Labour answers, not rebranded Tory or Ukip ones.

Let's be really clear; there is no great love for David Cameron and the Conservative Party in places like Basildon and Thurrock. There is scope to win back the hearts and minds of people along the South Essex corridor in 2020 but the decision Labour members and supporters make in the coming weeks will determine whether this is a part of the world that is back in play or gone forever.

Labour needs someone who is aspiration personified - the comprehensive kid who went to Cambridge and then sat at the cabinet table. Someone who at a time of unprecedented cynicism in politics is authentic and natural. Someone who hasn't just read about working class people in a university textbook but who understands working class people. We are fortunate in this leadership campaign to have all of that rolled into one leadership contender. Andy Burnham. We will be backing Andy wholeheartedly and urging people Thurrock, Basildon, Castle Point, Southend, Brentwood, Billericay and Chelmsford to do likewise.

He can recapture the hearts and minds of South Essex people and win again in Basildon and Thurrock.

Gavin Callaghan was the Labour PPC for Basildon and Billericay, and is leader of the Basildon Labour Group

Mike Le-Surf was the Labour PPC for South Basildon and East Thurrock