Labour is still in danger of abandoning its traditional support base despite exceeding expectations in the general election, according to MPs.
Jess Phillips, Lucy Powell, Steve McCabe and Angela Eagle said the party has to do much more to connect with white working class voters in historically Labour constituencies before the next election if it is to have any hope of winning power.
Speaking at a party conference fringe event, Phillips, who has represented Birmingham Yardley since 2015, said activists should not be fooled into thinking the next election campaign will be easy.
“The pure arithmetic means that basically Labour has to win 65 more seats to have a majority of one,” she added.
“So while it seems like one more big heave-ho might get us over the line, because the Tories are having a terrible time, actually the idea of winning 65 seats is a huge deal of work in a wide variety of places that have different feelings, different hopes, different dreams, different industries and different people who have different needs from their elected representatives.”
Phillips, who backed Yvette Cooper in the 2015 leadership election, said she felt Labour’s most recent general election campaign had spoken more to middle class voters than the country at large.
“Labour needs to be able to talk to people in Putney as well as people in Walsall,” she said.
“What we have to look at is where we went wrong in some working class areas. So while there was a massive swing in middle class areas - and the leadership may not thank me for saying this - I felt the manifesto, in part, and the push of the campaign was as much like the 1997 manifesto and push that we’ve ever seen, with middle class concerns being addressed.
“That is brilliant in places like Canterbury and Kensington and Chelsea. Where the swing against the previous Labour vote weakened was in places like the North and the Midlands.
“We have got to see our pitch in both those areas before we have a chance, and getting a better core message to those sorts of areas is something we have got to work on and got to take note of.”
Manchester Central MP Lucy Powell said she felt there was a big difference between the campaigns Labour fought on the doorstep and on social media ahead of June’s general election.
“We did very well among young disaffected voters, mobilising them for the first time,” the former Ed Miliband campaign chief added.
“But the socially left-behind older voters and among the traditional working class, we actually went backwards.”
Powell said Labour’s message of hope had won out over Theresa May’s “doom and gloom” campaign, but that the party would be foolish to bank on a similarly poor performance from the Tories in future.
“The Tories have a killer instinct for power. We all like to think the next general election is just around the corner. It probably won’t be. I think whatever happens, the next election will be a post-Brexit Britain election,” she added.
“I think we have to build on all the positives - a strong manifesto, authentic campaigning and a strong story for how Britain can be shaped in the future.”
Fellow north west MP and brief party leadership hopeful Angela Eagle said Labour needed to craft a “Marshall Plan” to rebuild and offer hope to some of the traditionally Labour constituencies that had suffered decline in recent years.
“This may have happened more gradually than the devastation wreaked by a hurricane, but it still requires equal work to rebuild,” she told delegates.
Birmingham Selly Oak MP Steve McCabe said many voters in historically Labour areas had huge concerns about decaying communities, particularly around anti-social behaviour, crime and policing.
He added: “I think if we are not responding to those people, they will look elsewhere for people who will find solutions to the things we seem to be avoiding.
“I think we are doing a good job of opening up our party to members and activists and listening to them. But I wonder if we are affording the same approach to the electorate, to the people who have doubts, some of those older white working class voters we have talked about.
“I wonder if we are quite as open to them, or if there is a slight danger for some people that we are going to communicate a message that Labour isn’t their sort of party any more.”
Parliamentary veteran McCabe, who was elected during Labour’s 1997 landslide, said he was concerned Labour was becoming “preachy” and was in danger of telling people what to think.
“Quite often voters on the doorstep tell me to just shut up and listen to them,” he said.
“And I think it’s important to hang on to voters at that level and not end up in that kind of preachy relationship with them.
“Len [McCluskey] when he told us we won the election. We won the campaign, Jeremy turned out to be a formidable campaigner. His popularity has grown and exceeding anything I honestly thought was possible.
“But the reality is, we did not win the election. We are in opposition. We cannot allow ourselves to get into that sort of mentality, that says because we want it to be so, that’s how it is. We have got to learn to be a bit more open to some of the doubts and concerns.
“We need to develop a slightly different attitude towards criticism. If we get to a stage in the party where anyone who voices doubts or criticism is going to be ostracised as an unbeliever or is going to be cast aside, we are going to be in trouble.”