These remarks by Justin Madders were made at the English Labour Network’s event in Parliament 3 March 2020. We’re publishing all contributions ahead of St George’s Day.
John Denham has been a lone voice on the politics of England at time, and is always pioneering, ahead of the curve, showing the problems that we face that I think were brought into devastatingly sharp focus in the 2019 general election. If you look back to 2001, seats we held then – Watford, Swindon, Thanet, Dorset – we’re not anywhere near those seats now. Then we look at the ones we’ve lost this time – Redcar, Blackpool, Dewsbury and West Bromwich. There’s a whole range of places in England where we are struggling to connect and we need to really understand how we can change that.
I’m not suggesting it’s as simple as saying we need to be a little bit more English – clearly there’s a lot more going on here – but I think what we’ve seen has actually brought into focus quite a longstanding cultural and political shift away from the Labour Party for quite a large section of the population. I think Brexit was really the rocket fuel that actually brought us to that devastating result in 2019.
Lisa Nandy has been warning about Labour’s struggles in towns for a long time, recognising we need to win these seats if we’re going to form a government in the future. The places where we have the biggest mountain to climb are places where people have had a decade long fall in living standards, wages about 4% less than they were in 2008 in real terms. They see opportunities for themselves squeezed, they don’t see their local big employers offering the longstanding jobs, and they see their children are going to have probably less chances in life, in terms of a career and good housing.
The Social Mobility Commission are doing some very interesting work on this at the moment and they found in a survey not so long ago that 78% of people in London think there are good opportunities to progress. If you go up to the North-East, that’s only 31%. That’s a massive difference and that clearly isn’t something that we can correlate exactly with the general election result, but it does show that there are lots of places around the country where people feel much more pessimistic about the future and at the moment, and that these places don’t seem to think the Labour Party provides the answer to those challenges.
So it’s not as straightforward as north – south, town – city, because if you look in the general election, we did well in some places. If you look in my part of the world, I’ve got a bigger majority than 2015. If you look at Chester, majority of 97 in 2015, got over 6,000 majority now. If you over the border, five miles away in North Wales, we lost every seat except one and we only held on to that one by 200. Maybe it’s the Scouse influence in our area, I don’t know, but I think if you look at what happened in North Wales there are huge parallels between places like Wrexham and Workington where they saw a group of politicians totally remote from them. I think actually for North Wales it was a double whammy because they saw Cardiff and London as both being remote places.
But there is a route back. Take Chester, which has a proactive Labour council and a proactive Labour MP in Chris Matheson. The Labour Party took over civic life in Chester. That means that they’re everywhere. Every event there’s a councillor there, the MP is there, other activists are there. It’s not rocket science, you just have to be there and get your face about and actually, with our membership base, we should be in the best position of all to do that.
Actually the key to our success in the future has got to be building up from our local government base. That’s the only way we’ll put ourselves in a strong position for the next election. The party needs to think about this nationally as part of a four-year strategy, not dipping out of local elections when they happen as part of the annual cycle. It’s got to be the way ahead because I think the general section showed actually those candidates who had a good track record in local politics can actually breakthrough in national elections as well and actually most worryingly, I think the Tories have cottoned on to that.
I’ve listened to a lot of the maiden speeches from new Conservative MPs who’ve taken seats in the red wall. They’re sounding very different to the ones we used to have. They’re not stockbrokers parachuted in from Surrey, they’re actually people who’ve often grown up in those communities. They look and sound like the majority of people there and they’re a very different type of Tory to what we’re used to. So they’re digging in now and they’re going to be hard to dislodge.
Of course, the government are making blatantly political spending decisions. The towns fund, the high streets fund, the Beeching reversals [of local railway stations]. They’re all very political, pointed spending decisions aimed to dig in these MPs to make them hard to remove in the future. So there’s a massive challenge for us there, but actually I’m not convinced that any of these spending announcements have any substance behind them. So when we get to the next general election I think there will still be a massive perception from people in those areas that there is an unequal distribution of resources and inequality of opportunity. But we’ve got to persuade them that actually we’re the party who will improve their lives.
That’s difficult because they don’t see enough people who look like them and sound like them in the media when politics is talked about, and they don’t articulate the frustrations that people feel. I know we’re in London, of course we’re in London, politics in this country is massively London-centric. The media is massively London-centric. If you’re a Labour MP from London you’re twice as likely to be a guest on Question Time than you are if you’re a Labour MP from elsewhere in the country.
That is a fact because it’s part of the media bubble in London. So we have to work through that, we have to make sure that we have voices from all around the country out on the media. But we’ve got to be authentic about it, people can smell a phoney a mile off. We don’t want the 2020 equivalent of William Hague in a baseball cap. We have to have honestly, genuinely sounding people and I actually think all the leadership candidates that we’ve got are sincere, genuine people and if they’re allowed to be themselves, which hopefully they will be, I think there’s an opportunity for all of them to reconnect.
One thing I’m doing in Parliament is setting up the Labour for the North Network in order for northern MPs to become a much more coherent and strong voice for the north of England. To be honest, the reaction we got from MPs was overwhelming. There’s definitely something to tap into there regarding representing our communities.
Finally, I just want to say a few words about Scotland. What’s that got to do with the English Labour Network, you might ask? Well, I think it’s an example, it’s a warning about what can happen if you don’t seem relevant to the people that you’re supposed to represent. It’s a clear warning that we can’t assume anything about votes being loaned to the Tories automatically coming back to us. I don’t know if there’s a way back for us in Scotland but I think at the moment, the way it looks we have more chance of winning seats in England, which is why this debate matters so much.
Because there’s actually, whether we like it or not, a huge risk that Scotland could be an independent country by the time of the next general election. The Tories keep saying that they don’t want another referendum, but the political momentum up there is clearly in favour of one and, in the long run, it actually suits the Tories to have Scotland out of the equation altogether. I know they’re the unionist party, but they haven’t always been, and you only need to look at Brexit to see how quickly they can change their position to suit the political times. Of course, they’ll do that much more readily if they think it’s going to give them a chance of winning. So I think we have to be aware that England is really Labour’s most realistic chance of getting back into government.
We can only win England back if we’re outward looking as a party, which means we have to stop arguing with ourselves in London. We have to be authentic, we have to be ourselves and we have to be unafraid of saying that we’re English and that we’re proud of being English.