A close ally of Ed Miliband has warned that the Labour Party risks alienating voters in the south of England by talking up the north-south divide.
John Denham, a former Cabinet minister who later served as the Labour leader’s parliamentary aide, said the party was “not on the agenda” for most people in the south because they believed Labour did not understand them. He warned: “We have to govern as 'One Nation'. We can’t just be a Government for the places we return the most Labour MPs”.
His stinging criticism came as Mr Miliband launched Labour’s campaign for this month’s European and local elections, where the party is anxious to perform well in the south to show it is on course to win next year’s general election. When Tony Blair won his landslide victory in 1997, Labour won more than 50 seats in the south east (excluding London), south west and East Anglia, but that dropped to only 10 at the the 2010 election.
Mr Denham did not criticise Mr Miliband personally in his remarks at a London School of Economics seminar, and said Labour was on track to gain its target seats in the south next year and win an overall majority. However, some Blairites are worried that Labour is directing its appeal to the party’s “core vote” despite Mr Miliband’s “One Nation Labour” mantra.
Mr Denham, who is standing down as MP for Southampton Itchen next year, warned that it might be difficult for Labour to win future elections unless it performed better in the south. “If Labour can't crack the problem of extending its base in southern England it is pretty likely, as the cultural history of voting in a particular way gradually fades with the generations, then we won't actually win the seats in the North that we have won previously.”
He told the seminar: “The first thing Labour has got to do: we have to stop comparing the South to everywhere else. Despite my best efforts many of my party colleagues insist on talking about a north-south divide. It’s one of the problems we have in winning support for Labour in the South."
Mr Denham added: “We are simply not on the agenda for most southern voters. Our difficulty is that outside the target seats most voters don’t think about voting Labour and most voters don’t even think we are talking to them when we think we are talking about them."
The former Universities Secretary, who backed Mr Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership election, said: “If Labour politicians talk about rail fares, your average southern voter probably thinks you're talking about the train fare from Manchester to Sheffield not the 6:54 from Basingstoke… It’s not that we need different policies for the south. But unless we are clearly perceived to be talking about the south were not going to make a breakthrough."
Mr Miliband said: "I think that John speaks a lot of sense about the challenges for Labour right across the country, including in the south. I think we have a very important message about the south and to the people in the south of England because the cost of living crisis is what so many people are facing.”