THE BLOG

Time To Take The Towns

20/06/2017 11:33
PA Wire/PA Images

At the start of the campaign I wrote a piece entitled, 'Theresa May is a lot of things but strong and stable she is not'. I've never been so pleased to say 'I told you so' in all of my life.

However, whilst I rejoice at the country coming to terms with her incompetence over the last seven weeks, I regret that Labour wasn't in a position to win the General Election.

Jeremy Corbyn undoubtedly inspired millions of people to vote for us and he deserves great credit for rising to the occasion. If he now sets about naming a cabinet of big hitters and spares us the mediocrity of messers Abbott, Thornberry and McDonnell, then we have a real shot at forming a Government for the many not just the few.

In order to make that happen Labour needs to be willing to listen to some of the people (like me) who have dissented against Corbyn for the last two years and who saw our fears played out in towns across the country, last Thursday.

Here are the three key areas we need to address if we are to win favour in our nation's towns:

1) Labour winning in Canterbury or in Kensington and Chelsea only serves to solidify the image of Labour as a party of the metropolitan elite. It is great that we won these seats but all indicators show our vote dropped amongst the working class. Labour needs to understand why and address this perceptual image problem.

2) Labour needs to address the real divide in this country which is not North versus South or England versus Scotland but rather our Cities versus our Towns.

3) We have become a party of principle in the public's consciousness, but now we need to be a party of real character. That means extending our reach beyond just Jeremy and forming a Shadow Cabinet that can hit sixes against a hapless Tory Prime Minister, and a beleaguered Cabinet that has as much credibility as a Zimbabwean General Election result.

Points one and three are interlinked. Our current shadow Cabinet hasn't endeared themselves to the public, despite them embarking on a series of unpopular policy reforms. There are some notable exceptions and I would earmark Keir Starmer, Barry Gardiner and Angela Rayner as real stars of this campaign.

However, we need to ensure our cabinet reaches out beyond just those MPs who represent constituencies in which an Oyster Card works. Having a cabinet from across the regions of the country, from different backgrounds, different accents and different political viewpoints, will be a strength not a weakness.

We have seen what happens to political leaders who surround themselves with 'yes men'. They end up having to fire them 48 hours after losing their parliamentary majority.

The second point however, is the biggest and most important challenge for Labour, not least because it represents our path to 326 seats and a parliamentary majority.

We know that Labour performs well in the cities. London, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Manchester, Cardiff and Sheffield are awash with Labour MPs.

Yet it is a very different picture in the towns. Especially in my part of the world, Essex. Despite achieving 40 per cent in the polls, the county that is home to two of the founding New Towns didn't return a single Labour MP for the third election in a row.

In Thurrock, Basildon and Harlow Labour performed better than in 2015 but was still not close enough to return a Labour MP. In fact in all three seats we are now further away from winning those seats than we were in 2010.

It is a pattern that was repeated across the country in places like Northampton, Nuneaton, Corby, Burton and Gillingham.

In large part these are constituencies that have seen the impact of immigration more acutely. For people living in these seats, Labour must understand that it is less a matter of economics and more a question of infrastructure and integration. We must develop our arguments and message on the return of the migration fund that we wish to see.

These are also areas of the country that have a lower than average public sector work force. Most people living in these areas are working in the private sector - many in the financial services in London. They are worried about some of Labour's rhetoric towards business and what they see as an attack on aspiration and people wanting to earn good money. They are also people who look at average house prices and the cost of living in the south east of England and rightly conclude that £80,000 a year salary is not the Kings ransom it might be in other parts of the country where a starter home isn't £450,000.

These are people who look at the amount of money that is spent on regeneration projects in cities across the country. They see investment in culture and the arts and infrastructure - bridges and roads and motorways. They see major chains opening bars and restaurants and theatres packed out with high class performances. They see areas with thriving night time economies. They then look at their tired towns that have been starved of investment and where the only form of regeneration that they get is a new Morrisons or a new multi-screen cinema and conclude that they are getting a second rate deal in comparison.

These are areas where many people feel trapped. And they feel as if the promise of the towns from thirty, forty, fifty years ago has somehow been lost. These are people who moved out of the city so that they could buy a house with a garden, walk to the local school and have affordable transport links back into the major cities for work.

Today they see school places squeezed with very few new schools being built. Their children and grandchildren are being forced to move away from where they grew up in order to rent a place to live or work. They see their costs of living go up and their quality of life go down.

None of this is news that became apparent on Thursday 8 June by the way. In each of the last two General Elections Labour has, under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, not been a million miles away in articulating the current state of the nation. Last week some sections of the country believed we had the answers to how we redress that balance.

The challenge now is to take Corbyn's message of hope to the towns and to do it in a way that really does resonate. To make that work he will require the services of Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Dan Jarvis, Chuka Umunna and several of the other big Labour thinkers who have spent the last two years working on exactly the issues in the towns that I've described here.

There is much to do and much to tell.

Surely it is only a matter of time before we get the chance to get back out to the towns in another General Election, and explain why with Labour, things can only get better.

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