Labour’s Southern challenge
Much attention has been brought to Labour’s problem in winning back the Red Wall constituencies, but it is important to realise that this problem extends far wider than one specific region within the UK. Rather than being a specific geographical problem it is instead a specific constituency type problem. Areas that have experienced de-industrialisation and changing economies in recent decades extend beyond the Red Wall and have abandoned Labour long ago. Importantly, Labour did represent these constituencies in the 2005-’10 parliament, but these areas abandoned Labour in the 2010 election and have continued to do so in successive elections throughout the last decade. To highlight this problem the blog focuses on the South East of England. The blog argues that evidence from the South Eastern English constituencies Labour once represented shows their long-term decline amongst certain groups presents them with an even bigger challenge than the Red Wall constituencies do.
Labour’s 2005 held Southern seats:
Due to changing demographics and their voting patterns Labour has been not only able to hold onto some southern constituencies, but in some cases they have quite clearly extended their majority. These seats include Brighton constituencies and other University areas, such as Oxford. However, Labour has not been able to regain most of their southern losses, with many of these seats showing increased majorities in favour of Conservative representation. This is clearly most often the case in former Labour Kent seats. Labour’s majorities on average was around 5% of the electorate in 2005, but now they find themselves on average around 35% behind the Tories. These constituencies in particular have ageing populations, fewer people accessing University level education and can be described as having more voters working in self-employed and working class occupations. These are the exact type of demographics that exist with Red Wall constituencies that have seen a long-term Labour decline. Yet, this story has received less attention as these seats abandoned Labour in 2010 when many thought the recession explained Labour’s defeat. However, since then Media reports have not highlighted Labour’s slow decline in these constituencies and Red Wall seats have received the attention as they had been Labour for decades and more clearly represent a shift that is easier to spot and report. Therefore, if Labour wants to regain an overall majority they must address these demographic problems not just in Red Wall areas, but in Southern former Labour areas to.
This is also the case for the key marginal of Hastings&Rye, where Labour has done well with new London graduates moving into the area, but has lost support in areas that can be described to be very similar to the working class Kentish and Red Wall constituencies. Therefore, even in the seat easiest for Labour to regain within South Eastern England Labour must address this demographic problem as Labour has most likely maxed out their appeal to liberal younger graduates. Moreover, it is important to note that in this constituency the University campus has closed and moved to Brighton, meaning that these demographic problems Labour faces within this constituency likely will not change soon. Consequently, if Labour wants to win Hastings in the next election they must appeal to the demographics Labour lost. Why is winning Hastings&Rye so important? Because Labour has not won a general election without winning this seat since 1974, which will be 50 years ago by the time of the next election. Critically, this means if Labour wants to get back into office they must win this seat.
The Lib-Dems decline and its impact:
Liberal democrat 2005 held seats:
On a final note, Labour may also need help from the Liberal Democrats within certain pockets within English regions. The Lib-Dem’s decline from the 2010 election result has handed seats to the Conservatives in the southern part of the country. The collapse of the Lib-Dems within this region has helped the Conservatives gain five seats and without their revival Labour will be hampered in gaining a majority.
Overall, the evidence presented in this blog has shown that Labour must not get bogged down in a North-South divide debate as their problem is not one of geography, but one of demographics and specific constituency types. Labour must recognise that whilst the loss of the Red Wall seats woke many of their supporters up about how bad their decline of working class support has become this decline has also developed in former Labour seats elsewhere. This had turned these seats into mostly strong Conservative seats, making it harder for Labour to gain the very seats that contributed to their 2005 majority. This is critical for Labour to understand as without winning some of these seats back, on top of Red Wall areas, Labour does not have a clear pathway back into 10 Downing Street.
Afterward: Doing the Labour majority maths.
In 2005 Labour had a majority of 66. With the loss of Scotland, bar one seat (-40), that takes Labour down to 26. If Labour and the Lib-Dems fail to win any of these south eastern seats that would take Labour down to a majority of 10, even if they won all the other seats they held in 2005. Further to this, Labour lost 6 constituencies in 2017 which now mostly have large Tory majorities, bringing their theoretical majority down to 4. Labour has now has the speaker seat, bringing this theoretical majority down to 3. Further to this, if Scotland did go for Independence Labour would lose another seat, taking this theoretical majority down to 2. Then all it would take, if Scotland stays, is a couple of radical backbench MPs to start voting against the government and the government will struggle to get is business through the house. Of course, you have to take other factors into account, like Northern Irish MPs and seats Labour has gained off the Tories since 2005/’10, but what this does show is that without winning back these seats a majority Labour government looks unlikely and certainly difficult to make work.
A James Prentice Blog.
Note: This is just a summary and does not seek to explain all the intricate details related to this subject.