Whether Owen Smith or Jeremy Corbyn is elected in two weeks’ time, the new Labour leader must make turning around our Party’s lack of public appeal his first priority. Few jobs are blessed with published performance indicators but as politicians, we are – and the polling tells us that Labour needs to do much better.
The leadership campaign has allowed a period of debate about the short-term causes of Labour’s poor position, and where the responsibility lies. The election of a new leader should put that discussion to bed, and force us to focus instead on what we’re going to do about it.
The polling average has consistently shown us behind the Tories since the 2015 general election, with a current double-digit deficit. Without a strong recovery in Scotland, at the next election Labour needs an average swing from the Conservatives of over 10 in England and Wales to win back 94 seats, just to become the largest Party in 2020. And that’s before boundary changes.
It can be hard to get a handle on how to respond to public opinion or get clear political bearings from macro electoral analysis, so to keep it simple here’s one question the new Labour leader must answer – how do we win back the New Towns?
Labour created the New Towns to help deal with the housing shortage after the Second World War, particularly in high growth areas. They were planned settlements with a high proportion of public rented housing and, at their peak, were adding tens of thousands of homes a year to our nation’s housing stock, as well as meeting a generation’s aspiration for a better life.
But seventy years on from the 1946 New Towns Act, the electoral facts for Labour are bleak. The 14 post-war New Towns in the Midlands and the South of England comprise 16 constituencies in 2016. In 1997 Labour won all but one of these or their predecessor seats – Bracknell. In May 2010 we won just one – Telford; and in 2015, none at all.
The New Towns include bellwether seats like Harlow and Redditch, as well as seats like Crawley and Corby without which no Party leader has entered Downing Street for more than three decades. The next election will be won and lost in the New Towns. They define the electoral battleground in England.
These 16 New Town constituencies have higher than average levels of social housing, but with slightly higher average incomes too. They’re marginally more ethnically diverse than average, and all are areas which voted to leave in the referendum – though some by only a slim margin. In 2015, one in six voters backed UKIP.
There’s nothing inevitable or irreversible about Labour’s retreat from the New Towns. We were knocked back in these areas in the 1980s before going on to win big support again in the late nineties and early 2000s. And Labour still runs seven of the 14 councils.
However, doing the same again will need a similar scale of effort as in the 1990s. To win back the 15 seats in the areas we’ve held before will need an average swing from Conservatives to Labour of over 7 per cent, overturning an average majority of more than 6500.
So the new Labour leader should set up a New Towns taskforce to analyse where Labour has gone wrong and what we must do to put it right.
In 1946, Labour kick-started the creation of the New Towns. In 2016, we must start to win them back.
Previously published on the Times Red Box Website: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/redbox/topic/corbyns-labour/labour-must-work-out-how-to-win-back-new-towns