Labour's already running out of time to regain its lost voters

The leadership candidates are debating plenty of things – but not how to appeal to the southern and Ukip voters they need for power

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

The Labour leadership contest was supposed to be a debate about the party’s future. Instead it has oscillated between petty personality politics and bickering. Nobody is addressing the question of how to win back lost voters.

The four candidates have barely mentioned the fact that Labour is not winning seats in the south of England, nor the huge challenge from Ukip in its heartlands in the north. Given that the party failed to win its majority in England, it is staggering that more attention hasn’t been paid to this at hustings and in speeches. The candidates make nebulous comments about the need to give Ukip voters ‘hope’, but that’s it. The south seems to have been forgotten.

This neglect by those pitching to run the party means that others are having to do the heavy lifting. Senior figures such as former cabinet ministers John Healey and John Denham are pressuring the party’s hierarchy to start addressing its weaknesses now when there is time, rather than when an election is approaching and everyone is starting to panic again. Their campaigns are designed to give practical help to whoever is elected leader, regardless of their preference for left-wing or centrist policies.

This week a group of 13 parliamentary candidates who failed to win their seats in the south wrote a letter to all the leadership and deputy leadership hopefuls. They complained that ‘too often the party has failed to reach out to southern voters’, even though nearly a third of its target seats at the next election will be in the south west, south east and east of England.

The candidates asked the leadership contenders to ensure that Labour developed a ‘strong and identifiable southern voice’ in the media (something that Andy Burnham, who wants to construct his shadow cabinet according to the range of regional accents available in the party, may disagree with) and allowed southern party members a say in policy development. They asked for more support in campaigns across the south — including in ‘unwinnable’ seats — so that the party builds up a presence.

With the honourable exception of south-west MP and deputy leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw, the party’s southern discomfort is mostly discussed by people who aren’t MPs: failed candidates and the former MP for Southampton Itchen, John Denham, who stood down in 2015. Labour failed to hold Denham’s seat, with the Tories beating Rowenna Davis into second place.

But for candidates like Davis, the challenge isn’t as straightforward as convincing those who voted Tory that Labour is a safe bet. Labour struggled to win seats in the south because its voters also turned to Ukip. All the leadership candidates have commissioned work on Ukip, even if they don’t like to talk about it at hustings.

Meanwhile John Healey is carrying out a review for the party’s Learning the Lessons Taskforce, which was set up in the weeks following the election defeat and will present its findings to the new leader in the autumn. Healey’s review will assess the extent of the Ukip threat, both in the election just gone and in five years’ time, through analysis of individual seats and discussions with candidates and organisers.

The Wentworth and Dearne MP, who was one of the first to warn his party’s high command about Ukip, points out that it damaged the Labour vote and took working class support in all regions of the country.

Farage led his party to second place in 44 Labour seats, and Ukip has been winning Labour council seats in the Midlands and the north for the past few years. ‘Ukip’s strategy is to try to put itself as the main challenger to Labour in the north, and Farage has been saying that for three years,’ says Healey. ‘I think the campaign chiefs regarded that as a diversionary tactic from Farage, thinking that his principal concern was Tory voters.’

He is most anxious that his party doesn’t make the same mistakes as it did in the general election: believing that Ukip was a problem for the Tories, or that it would run out of steam. After a tumultuous summer for Farage and his colleagues, it would be very easy for Labourites to go through the same cycle of disbelief and then panic over the next five years.

‘We’ve got little time to lose,’ says Healey. Many of his colleagues agree, not least because Ukip wants to fight in next May’s Welsh Assembly elections. Ian Warren, a forecaster hired by Labour in the run-up to the election to advise candidates on Ukip in their seats, is raring to go.

‘My approach would be to start now from the ground up and within wards and constituencies, rather than working for a review or report from central office,’ he says. ‘I can start now. I’ve got the data and the analysis to start now, and they could have started now.’

But if the party spends a year wondering what to do about Ukip, it will find those elections very hard to fight. ‘Part of the problem with Ukip voters is that they do not trust us,’ says Rowenna Davis. ‘And they’re not going to trust us if we just turn up when there’s an election and demand their vote.’

The party doesn’t have time for a protracted ‘Lessons Taskforce’, especially if, as many suspect, that taskforce produces findings that are destined for the same fate as all the lengthy reports and policy reviews that Ed Miliband commissioned as leader and then ignored.

‘These reviews are all pointless anyway: they’ll produce general conclusions that mean nothing on the ground,’ says a party insider. ‘The surprise is that it’s taking them so long to reach conclusions many of us reached years ago.’

Labour risks conforming to the pattern of learning little from its election mistakes while prattling merrily away about the importance of learning lessons. Such prattling is a luxury the party cannot afford.

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Show comments
  • Damaris Tighe

    Some paragraphs would have been nice Isabel.

    • I think the paragraphs end where the blank lines are. Are you trying to read it on a telephone, or a washing machine, or something?

      • Damaris Tighe

        No – paragraphs have been added since I posted so someone at the Speccie must be reading the comments!

  • John Carins

    Yes, disillusioned Labour voters are turning to UKIP; simply because they are realising that UKIP is the only hope of keeping Britain and its values together. These voters having made the switch will never return. This is true also of ex Tory voters who have switched to the only patriotic party – UKIP.

    • Johnny Foreigner

      God, I hope it’s true and the numbers build.

      • James Lawrence

        No it’s not and no they won’t

        • Johnny Foreigner

          O alright, but I can hope can’t I?

        • Caractacus

          Cleaning out the European Elections. 4 million in the General (nearly half as much as Labour polled).

          Do you think all that momentum will just disappear?

        • Little Black Censored

          Gosh, that’s a convincing argument.

    • steveten

      UKIP’s share in the latest polls (9-10%) is lower than it was in the election, while, in spite of the current turmoil and Harman’s general uselessness as Acting Leader, Labour’s vote is holding up.

      There is no reason to believe that an unspun Corbyn leadership won’t be popular with non-Tory UKIP voters.

      • David

        UKIP consistently do better than they poll. With Labour it is the reverse.

  • Singularis

    The trouble for Labour with UKIP switchers is two-fold. 1. They were very rude about these people, just as the Tories were about their converts and 2. Not one of those leadership candidates has any genuine understanding of the issues that drove people to switch to UKIP. They pretty much think the voters were wrong and a few platitudes to try and tempt them back wont work.

    • Johnny Foreigner

      They and the Tories are still of the opinion, that when mingling with any of the UKIP electorate, they need to wear a mask and rubber gloves.

      • Singularis

        I thought they were still using hazmat suits tbh.

      • James Lawrence

        And rightly so. JC supporters remind me a lot of UKIP supporters.
        For the most part naïve and prefer glorious opposition to the rigors of government.

    • David

      Spot on. Why should I vote either Tory Or Labour having been told I am a racist? I am not and I resent the hubris of Labour, particularly.

      • Singularis

        They base it on the assumption voters had no other choice but politics in Britain has a much bigger market these days, something that many politicians are not equipped to deal with.

  • BillRees

    If Labour are to win UKIP supporters back, they have to campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the forthcoming referendum.

    I wouldn’t put it past them to do that under Corbyn.

    • Fraser Bailey

      Labour will never campaign to leave the EU. Ultimately, Labour will always believe in more layers of govt and more layers of bureaucrats, stamping on the faces of humankind forever. Thus Brussels represents an ideal for them.

      • Aberrant_Apostrophe

        And that’s precisely why they will never win back their former voters – especially those who can’t get decent paying jobs because they keep getting undercut by cheaper East Europeans who live 12 to a room.

  • rationality

    Dont believe the hype. Labour will do fine as its increasing its number of potential voters in the maternity wards and coming in from Calais.

    • Johnny Foreigner

      Isabel never seems to mention this, does anyone on this rag mention the projected long term effects?

  • davidshort10

    John Healey is not exactly the right person to be conducting this review. He is an Oxbridge-educated posh boy parachuted into a safe northern seat and so is an example of why those seats began voting UKIP. They would never vote Tory so instead began to abstain in their thousands during the Blair years. When UKIP came along, they started voting again. Healey is the part of the problem not the solution.

    • robertcp

      UKIP is way behind in the seats where it is in second place to Labour and appealing to UKIP will just alienate other voters that Labour needs. Scotland is probably lost for the next couple of elections, so marginals in the south and elsewhere in England should be the priority for Labour. Of course, this has probably been true for the last 90 years!

  • Commenthead

    Can’t wait for the 2020 election. It’s about time we saw a proper Labour wipeout in England to rival their Scottish performance.

  • MikeF

    It is not time that Labour is running out of. It is basic human decency, respect for established British – more particularly English — identity, adherence to the concept of equality before the law as opposed to preference for selected ‘minorities’, any sense of humility, belief in freedom of speech and democracy. Labour is now a rotten, debased version of anything worthwhile that it may once have been. It no longer deserves to exist and hopefully it will cease to do so.

  • Craven

    Whilst I agree with MikeF that Labour is now debased – Corbyn being the exception – blame has to be place on the shoulders of Blair who, to win power, adopted Thatcherite neoliberal policies and thus killed socialism. As socialism was as an expression of the beliefs of many traditional Labour supporters, Blair effectively sold our birthright for power. In doing so he undermined democracy itself and we are seeing the consequences today. UKIP is a phenomenon that grew out of the disillusionment of the pubic with a form of politics which were no longer democratic.

  • Sten vs Bren

    “Nobody is addressing the question of how to win back lost voters.”

    Yes, they are. Corbyn is saying that he would give the disenfranchised voters a choice. The other three are saying that they would give the Tory voters a second choice.

    • Éowyn

      I had a pamphlet through the door from Coopers PR team saying how this is the time to come together as a party, that evening I read an article in the Evening Standard by her slagging off Corbyn.

      I mean, does she really think that kind of behaviour will appeal to voters?

    • John Robert

      re- “disenfranchised voters”

      the people who voted Labour in 1997 and the two elections after and never did in 2015 might also think of themselves as “disenfranchised” in the Miliband and post-Miliband era.

      The point is that Corbyn – and Labour, in the throes of this leadership campaign – is not interested in them. I think the electorate at the 2015 election was something like 48m people. Labour party membership has more than doubled since then, and maybe 600,000 members or supporters will vote to choose the leader.

      I realise that the left tend to think that they have history on their side, and it is always just “one more push” and the masses will see the light, etc., but in the absence of revolution, you have to persuade a lot of those 48m people to vote for your policies. And I don’t think Corbyn will be winning over either the people who voted Labour in 97, or the working class UKIP voters of 2015.

  • Aberrant_Apostrophe

    I don’t think UKIP ‘took’ Labour voters at all. Labour simply handed them over on a silver platter.

  • derek

    In a local council election in Caerphilly last week UKIP polled 26%.

  • John M

    ” All the leadership candidates have commissioned work on Ukip”

    Seriously? They need to commission analysis on why people voted for UKIP? How stupid and out of touch are these bloody people! They’re trying to become leader of thier party and they don’t even know why thier base voted for the other team?

    Not only doesn this show that these candidates don’t have a clue, it shows they are completely out of touch with thier electorate, and clearly have no perception at all of how thier “messages” play to those people. Surely to be a leader you should have an idea how you are going to get those people back and yet we hear that instead they are “commissioning work” into it.

    I’ll offer a couple of free tips to get the “work” going. These are free :
    a) You need to stop just assuming you “own” the working class.
    b) You need to stop calling UKIP nutters, racists and bigots (because when you do that you call thier supporters nutters, racists and bigots – not especially a good idea that one)
    c) You might care to notice that the unfettered immigration has had a massive effect on the number of jobs and levels of wages available to these people.
    d) Perhaps you could also talk in plain english , rather that that legally filtered, politically correct, bollocks-speak that passes for New Labour in interviews and speeches these days.
    e) Listen to the electorate. Not the Unions.