The Labour Party’s in Need of a Southern Strategy

March 20, 2013

LabourLast month’s Eastleigh by-election set off a ripple effect that was felt by all the main UK political parties. The Liberal Democrats salvaged a respectable victory given the dreadful battering they received at the hands of the media over the previous fortnight. The Tories had a nightmare campaign, squeezed into third place by the UK Independence Party (Ukip), who were ecstatic as their party delivered its best showing at the polls in any Westminster election.

Although Eastleigh was never a realistic target seat for Labour, the outcome hints at bigger challenges the party faces in securing votes and translating them into seats in Southern England. In a recent interview with the Spectator magazine, Labour’s shadow defence minister Jim Murphy commented that Labour needs to reconnect with voters and that the party is ‘stagnating’. Nowhere is this clearer than in Southern England.

Between now and the 2015 general election, Labour needs to adopt a two pronged approach to courting southern voters. Firstly, it must not miscalculate the Liberal Democrat threat and assume that all those disaffected Liberal Democrat voters will turn red as this would be foolish and arrogant. Labour needs to connect with key marginal southern Liberal Democrat constituencies such as Norwich South, Hornsey and Wood Green where in each constituency as little as 700 votes separate the parties. While the Labour leader Ed Miliband has still to flesh out the policy of his ‘One Nation’ philosophy, it’s clear that he needs to develop a comprehensive economic Plan B to rival the Chancellor’s George Osborne’s Plan A and most importantly this needs to chime with the southern voters he needs to win over.

The second prong of the Southern Strategy is that the One Nation theme needs to appeal to frustrated southern Tory voters especially white working class voters who were keen supporters of Margaret Thatcher. The Conservatives’ message on welfare which focuses on the language of ‘strivers versus scroungers’ has proven to gain real traction with this group as it plays into their ideas of fairness and hard work. A key learning from Eastleigh is that voters want a party with a trusted approach to immigration and Ukip’s success was, in part, down to this. In government Labour failed to address immigration viewing it as a dangerously toxic issue. Not grasping this nettle contributed to the Party’s defeat in 2010 and Ed Miliband’s party political broadcast on the issue a few weeks ago did little to restore confidence in the electorate that the Labour Party is now tough on immigration.

While the Coalition may have narrowly averted a triple dip recession Labour still needs to position itself as a party with competent economic plans on tax and spend, deficit reduction, immigration and welfare. As Nick Pearce outlines in The Financial Times today, Labour has the chance to lead on fiscal policy and their 2015 election manifesto will probably take a similar approach to that of 1997, sticking to the Coalition’s fiscal plans and varying the balance between tax and spend but not at the speed of deficit reduction. The Chancellor’s plans to cut corporation tax will make the UK more attractive to business but many on the left would argue that there are still too many loopholes in the current system which needs to be addressed.

If voters trust a party on the economy then they trust them to run the country. Today’s Budget has been described as helping people who ‘want to work hard and get on’ and this clearly holds appeal to working families. Plans to freeze fuel duty for another year, announcing the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme and plans that from 2014 there will be no income tax on the first £10,000 of salary, along with Osborne’s plans to introduce funds for regional growth, as set out in Conservative grandee and former cabinet minister Michael Heseltine’s report, will all appeal to voters in southern constituencies.

As much as the Labour Party would like to embark on the 2015 general election campaign with a promise to reverse the Coalition’s cuts, in reality this won’t be possible. Labour has barely over two years to gain the trust of voters and investors. To win in 2015 Labour needs a clean break with the economics of the past and a strategic campaign plan which takes nothing for granted.

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Alexis Darby is a Senior Account Executive with the Corporate & Public Affairs Practice at Ketchum Pleon London. Her areas of expertise include media relations, political analysis and stakeholder engagement. A self-confessed political geek and a marathon runner in training (thinking New York!), Alexis can be reached at @alexis_darby.