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The Lesson From the Beckett Report? Labour Needs to Reach Out to Ex-Labour Voters Again

22/01/2016 07:52

Margaret Beckett has now published her inquest into what went wrong for Labour in 2015. It's sobering reading - the Tories share of the vote grew more than ours and we were comprehensively out-performed in most of the key marginal seats. The Beckett Report must be studied carefully by all of us committed to rebuilding a coalition that secures electoral victory again in 2020. Next week we'll begun those discussions at the Labour Party NEC.

The Beckett report indicates Labour did best in those seats made up of the most economically disadvantaged groups, diverse communities or among younger voters, and newly graduated, highly educated professionals. But such seats tend to be city constituencies in areas of London, Birmingham and Manchester, already considered 'safe' Labour seats. Some of very best results in 2015 were in such constituencies like Birmingham Hall Green, Walthamstow, Brent Central and my own Leicester South.

Meanwhile if we look at what happened in the English towns and suburban areas that tend to characterise the Labour-Tory marginal we find a very different picture. Such seats are heavy in the mosaic groups that include older middle income households and working class families living in affordable housing in communities historically linked to manufacturing where Labour has performed well in the past. But not in 2015. Ukip ate badly into our vote share among these groups, which - combined with their appeal to poorer elderly people in England - led to us losing Labour seats like Plymouth Moorview and Telford to the Tories.

The election data should set off another alarm bell. Labour had a broader problem with elderly voters in general. Our vote among 18-24 year olds went up 12% in May, but our vote among over 65s fell by 8%. That presents a huge challenge considering that 78% of over-65s vote compared to just 43% of under-25s.

What's more, voting rates among youth and working class voters are declining faster than the average. In 1997, turnout among the social classes A & B was 79%. In 2015, it was 75%. In that same period, turnout among social classes D & E has fallen from 66% to 57%. Turnout among 18-24s fell 8 percentage points between 1997- 2015, compared to 1 percentage point for over-65s.

Obviously, turnout matters for more than just electoral reasons. As a party, Labour is driven by a mission to foster a strong civic society where citizens can play their full part. We have a leader in Jeremy Corbyn who has an infectious and inspirational passion for changing the way we do politics, ensuring we actively engage those who feel disillusioned and disengaged from politics and instead offer them hope for the future.

But going back to the election data, it's clear that just focusing on turnout will never be enough. In the marginal Tory-held seats, persuading non-voters to vote and vote Labour would clearly be a welcome step but statistically it would not change the result. The reality is without rebuilding a coalition and regaining the trust of ex-Labour voters who in recent elections moved to the Tories, the SNP and Ukip, we will not get out of the starting blocks in 2020.

Our great challenge now is to build a platform that commands that broad appeal while remaining true to our timeless values of greater equality and social justice. My Shadow Cabinet colleague Gloria De Piero and I have already hit the road travelling to towns and suburbs across Britain to listen to the decent hopes of people exhausted by this unfair economy, value public services, want the best for their families, have a desire for society to be kinder, and yet couldn't vote for us in 2015. As Shadow Cabinet members it's our responsibility to listen carefully to what they tell us.

Secondly while of course Labour shouldn't overplay what happens in other nations' electoral environments there may be some benefit for in learning from how progressive parties across the world have put together a platform with broad appeal. So in 2015 in another General Election, the Canadian Liberals faced a challenge of winning back voters who had previously deserted them to the Canadian Tories.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was able to both expose the extent to which the Canadian Tory government was pursuing an extreme agenda, not in tune with the decent, moderate instincts of those who had turned from Liberal to Tory in previous elections. But he was also able to reassure such voters about returning to vote for a progressive party. In a direct appeal to these voters in the final weeks of the election Trudeau said they were not 'enemies' but insisted instead 'they are our neighbours.'

As part of our new politics, we must embark on a full scale listening programme specifically targeted at all former Labour voters - whether they voted Tory, Ukip, SNP, Green or didn't vote at all.

While we must never deviate from our values, the ideas, struggles, thoughts and insight from those voters must help shape our future. After all, they are our neighbours.

Jon Ashworth is shadow minister without portfolio and the Labour MP for Leicester South

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