Friday, 9 December 2016

Are Labour facing an "existential crisis" in Lincolnshire? What can they do about it?

The results of the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election are in and as I suspected, the Conservatives managed to hold onto their majority in the constituency. In fact, they managed to increase their majority by 1.1% despite the turnout being a measly 37.1%. It was winter and it rained on and off during the day but blaming weather conditions for a low turnout kind of ignores an issue we may have with voter engagement following the divisive EU Referendum campaign earlier in the year. I've spoken to 1 voter (Richard) in North Hykeham who said he wouldn't vote yesterday because he thought the by-election campaigns were too Brexitcentric: "calling voters Remoaners and Brexiteers is just childish. The main party candidates didn't convince me that they'd stopped playing on the divides in a vain effort to gain extremist votes so why should I vote for someone who isn't inspiring any level of collaboration". I asked Richard whether he'd consider voting for an Independent candidate but he wasn't convinced...he said that voting away from the main parties would be a wasted vote and a waste of his time. At least Richard was honest with me!

Part of the reason why Dr Johnson won last  night is because she came across as a "safe pair of hands" candidate; someone who wouldn't rock the boat too much in Brexit negotiations but supports the Government's position wholeheartedly. UKIP had tried to slander Dr Johnson by making out she wasn't a "true Brexiteer" because she had "indicated support for the UK to remain in the Single Market" but quite clearly voters in the area thought that it was better to follow the Government's line and trust that they could deliver a plan that would please most voters regardless of how they voted in the EU Referendum. Dr Johnson came across well when it came to 1-1 voter engagement in villages across the constituency. After all, it wasn't just about Sleaford! Another reason why Caroline won was because she seemed to have clear policies when it came to improving transport infrastructure and was willing to work with fellow Conservative MPs such as Karl McCartney to future funding for the area. That coupled with Parliament's recent vote to trigger Article 50 by the 31st March 2017 and having a strong network of councillors in the outlying villages surrounding Sleaford bolstered the vote. Of course that has led to quips that anyone or anything with a blue rosette could win the election is disappointing but such simple responses to the by-election result doesn't do any politico any favours. Especially if the politico happens to be sympathetic to the Labour party's platform.

There's no getting away from it. Labour did appallingly in Sleaford and North Hykeham compared with just a year ago. Under Ed Miliband Labour managed to come 2nd in the constituency with 17.3% of the vote; last night Corbyn's Labour candidate Jim Clarke came 4th with a vote share of just 10.2%. Labour managed to keep their deposit but with the party being beaten by a passionate resurgent local Lib Dem party that managed to gain on actual votes and voter share and a UKIP party that had a candidate with ties to the National Front and a history of outspoken xenophobic attitudes towards  EU migrants and asylum seekers (telling the Govt to "send them back" in 2008) questions have now got to be asked about Labour's credibility in rural Midland areas. Just to think that Labour had a voter share percentage of 34.3% only 20 years ago shows how much confidence in the party has declined in Lincolnshire.

The reason why it matters that Labour came 4th in the by-election  is not because Labour had a chance of taking the Sleaford and North Hykeham seat (it's been solidly Conservative since its creation in 1997) but because Labour has a real chance of taking back Lincoln, the constituency immediately bordering Sleaford and NH. The Lincoln constituency happens to contain a number of rural villages, such as Skellingthorpe and according to plans drawn up by the Boundary Commission, North Hykeham may be incorporated into the Lincoln seat for the next GE expected to be held in 2020. If that is to be the case, Labour needs to understand the specific needs of North Hykeham voters if they are to turn them away from the Lib Dems and Conservatives.

I recently read Owen Jones's article that looked at the possible crisis Labour is facing in Northern England, Wales and Scotland: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/01/labour-would-save-the-nhs-but-the-nhs-wont-save-labour. I believe some of the observations I made from the article pertain to an analysis of Labour's existential crisis in Lincolnshire, especially amongst white working class voters such as myself. Here are my thoughts below:
  • Owen mentions pollster's Ian Warren's two groups of voters who would "never vote Tory": white blue collar workers, over 40 who Warren classes as "relatively politically engaged" non-graduates from Wales, Northern England or the Midlands and "Generation Renters" who are usually under 40 but rely on private rental market or are in social housing and feel disfranchised from voting in the "Establishment" electoral system in the first place. Some of these voters will have used foodbanks to feed their children; some will have had to make a choice between food and heat/light and some will have had direct experience of Payday loan rip-offs or even door-to-door loan shark intimidation. Both groups of voters are looking for changes to their quality of life and they want more than lip service from their representatives as to how the Government will help to enact this change.

  • Political tribalism is slowly being eroded away from Northern English regions and from Wales and the Labour Leadership should be rightly concerned that the base they felt they were "entitled" to keep hold of no longer have the blind faith in the Labour party at a local, regional and/or national level that they may once have had. Social media platforms and more transparency access to government plans and documents at a local and national level means that potential voters are now far more aware of political issues affecting their own constituencies and do have the choice as to whether to compare their MPs voting record or comments made through the media with those of their opponents to decide whether their MP is dealing with local issues in an appropriate way. Naturally not every voter has the time or inclination to do this so PR marketing can still help to sway votes to one party or another, provided the messages contained within are concise and effective-i.e. they focus on issues and policies that the electorate care about. Jeremy Corbyn's 10 point plan that he introduced during his second Leadership campaign in the Summer of 2016 is an example of effective PR strategy but Corbyn has to follow through by talking about specific points raised to show a sense of cohesive message. Organising national days of action is one way to highlight awareness and I'm impressed by Corbyn's ability to organise them when it comes to defending Comprehensive Education or the NHS but the odd day of action here and there won't change minds in the long term.  

  • The hardest to reach members of the electorate are those who feel that their lives won't improve regardless of whichever major party happens to be in power. Major parties for them are Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The reason why commentators hear of online tweeters calling members of the Labour party "Red Tory" or members of the Conservative party "Remoaner Traitors" is because these tweeters believe there are too many MPs/commentators who are members of Labour/Conservatives/Lib Dems who represent the centre ground in politics and they see the general convergence in views on immigration as evidence of them being complicit members of the political"Establishment" who need to be thrown out of power. Establishment MPs are "happy to let the working class people rot" because an unequal system benefits them. Of course there are major differences between millionaires and former social workers/domestic violence campaigners becoming MPs but if their views are seen as "too similar", voters who want a radical change will want to get rid of them regardless of their background.  Such proliferation of types of vitriolic online comments can put off potential voters from voting at all because they believe the system is literally too "rigged against them" in favour of London and the South East and voters who share "Establishment values" in the North and Wales. UKIP party members attempt to tap into feelings of inequality, especially amongst white working class voters and suggesting the only way to shake up the electoral system would be by voting UKIP.

  • I've spoken with a number of Millennials in North Hykeham and Lincoln who are currently unemployed or in low-wage part time work who chose to vote UKIP in yesterday's by-election. I'd never contemplate voting for a party with a reputation for being vehemently anti- asylum seeker, anti refugee and anti-immigration (as well as a lukewarm approach to LGBTQIA issues and almost no policy on improving trans rights) but I wanted to know what drove them to pluck for Victoria Ayling instead of Labour's Jim Clarke.

      • Sara, a part time waitress with 2 young children living in North Hykeham said to me: "Why should I vote Labour or Tory or Lib Dem? My situation never gets any better when I vote for them. Rents here in NH are still high and the NLW doesn't pay enough to help me save up for a deposit. I want to own my own home but I can't find full time work in the area.  Nobody speaks up for people like me. I didn't trust the local Tory MP (Stephen Phillips) and I don't trust in Dr Caroline Johnson either. All the Tories ever talk about is transportation and Brexit." Sara was talking about former local MP Stephen Phillips, who happened to be a virulent Brexiteer and even though Sara voted to Leave the UK, she didn't trust in the Tories to improve raise her standard of living. Sara could have voted Labour because she cares about workers' rights, increasing the NLW and tackling high rents. Yet Sara  said that UKIP were the only real party who are non-Establishment: "I want someone who won't lie to us and sugarcoat bad news. Immigrants have got more work than British born young people. Why can't the main parties candidates see that? I think if we reduce the numbers coming into Lincolnshire from the EU then employers might start being forced to recruit in North Hykeham and then maybe I'd get full time pay". Sara may be a bit of a wishful thinker here but there were plenty of voters in Sleaford and North Hykeham who turned away from Labour because Jim Clarke didn't tackle this mistaken view that migrants steal jobs from British citizens and that employers almost always deliberately choose to hire from EU countries first to deny Lincs born workers full time wages. Some may do this but not every employer is guilty of it. Labour needs to talk about the benefits of immigration to the local economy as well as promising to crack down on any employers who discriminate in their recruitment and selection practices so employers do look in the local area for their talent. Labour also needs to show how a crackdown on bad employer practices will help  prevent exploitation of migrant labour because the party should be concerned for the welfare of all working class people in Lincs, not just Yellowbellies
      • William, an unemployed 20 year old from Lincoln told me he wouldn't vote Labour again until they put up an inspiring candidate who'd be willing to address issues concerning immigration into the local area.  "I don't know what Labour were thinking when they let Eastern Europeans flood the country like have done over the past decade. Companies seem to be hiring more Romanian and Bulgarian builders and they can't even speak English. Why can't they give me a chance....I have a GCSE grade C in English like employers ask for but when I apply for jobs the employers don't want to know." According to the Annual Population Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics in 2014, the number of people who had not been born in the UK in Lincoln was 16%, which is actually higher than the percentage in the Boston area (which contains the constituency with the highest Leave vote in the country) at 15%. So I wasn't particularly surprised that British born people in Lincoln expressed opinions regarding immigration levels in the area without having to refer to Boston. I don't detect any malice, any wish to punish EU nationals from daring to move into the area, it was more a frustration with the current Conservative government and the previous Coalition government for not reaching their targets RE non-EU and EU migration that were actually set by Theresa May whilst she was Home Secretary.
      • Jim, a 23 year old electrician who lives in my ward of Birchwood told me that he'd only ever vote UKIP now because Labour has been slow in coming up with an alternative to the immigration policies put in place by the Conservatives. His parents both voted to Leave the EU without much hesitation and both have been Labour supporters throughout their adult lives. Yet Jim revealed that many of his parents' friends no longer bothered to vote because neither Labour nor the Conservatives have increased the NLW to an appropriate level for them to live on. And because living standards haven't improved and the economic recovery hasn't stretched to certain communities it has caused an element of discord and a fear of "being left behind". That fear leads some to blame the situation on immigration. Yet there are EU immigrants who have settled in Lincoln, set up businesses and are paying their fair share of taxes as well as employing local British-born working class people in their businesses. I doubt that Leave voters would want to throw these hard workers out of the country based on their nationality or citizenship. It's about raising awareness of the benefits of immigration as well as talking about the Migrant Impact Fund to help address concerns over public service pressures. It's about talking about the missed targets for non EU migration reduction by May and the Home Office during her tenure. As Owen Jones says, Labour parties across the UK should be holding public meetings in village halls, community centres, libraries to openly discuss immigration in a balanced manner, taking on board the concerns of voters and asking them how Labour could "do Brexit differently", if Brexit is required at all. Some Labour votes will be pretty much against Brexit, so Labour has to address their concerns whilst listening to those who voted to Leave. It's a very fine balancing act.
    Labour's Crisis: Issues:

    NHS:
    Labour wins voters over on the NHS. The NHS isn't a battleground issue that many voters in Lincoln, Boston, Grantham, Sleaford and North Hykeham, need to be convinced on by Labour but I feel Labour candidates need to talk in more detail about specific local NHS issues. Ambulance response times in Lincolnshire under EMAS are woeful, patients are waiting longer for essential operations and GP surgeries are under the threat of closure due to lack of adequate staffing. It has been revealed that the GP surgery in Metheringham will be closed, with 1,580 patients needing to be found a new surgery without having to travel 5-10 miles in the car (especially as some residents do not have direct access to a car). Remaining GP surgeries may become over-stretched with patients waiting longer to be seen for minor ailments, which could prompt more of them to attend A&Es in Lincoln and Grantham. Grantham A&E remains closed overnight, putting pressure on Lincoln County Hospital to treat emergency cases and as I've mentioned in a previous blogpost, there are plans afoot to try and close the A&E there by downgrading it to an Urgent Care Centre. Labour needs to oppose the proposed United Lincolnshire Hospital Trust Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) openly if it is to retain voters.  Labour also needs to talk about more than "throwing money at the NHS"; they need to show how the extra funding they are seeking would be spent- whether it would be on improving access to Mental Health Services for young residents or increasing funding for the number of nurses training places in Lincolnshire, restoring the bursary for nurses so they do not need to pay back loans once they are working hard in Lincs hospitals.  Local Labour candidates need to talk about key party policies such as ending Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts that suck money away from frontline services and lead to "privatisation by the back door", something that Jeremy Corbyn is keenly opposed to. Labour voters need to see the connection between local policy ideas and national policy ideas otherwise they won't vote!

    Welfare Reform:
    I can understand voter concerns on the welfare system. Most Corbyn supporters are concerned about the erosion of the welfare system; the Tories to them appear to lack compassion for the most vulnerable in society and most voters want to protect them from falling into a trap of poverty. That being said, voters in Lincs are sympathetic to the idea of welfare reform; it has to be run efficiently and fairly so as to not "waste taxpayers money". Some in Lincs believe the only way of doing this is by denying in work benefits to recent EU migrants for at least a few years as well as denying EU migrants out of work benefits (such as JSA) if they happen to lose their job within a few years. To me this seems harsh; migrants may lose their job for any number of reasons (illness, staff cuts) and if they happen to have made the effort to get a job in the first place, they should be afforded the same protections as British citizens (I'd also extend the same benefits to non-EU citizens to make sure they do not become destitute). Voters want to see the Government act with a certain amount of compassion. I'm against and against cuts to disability benefits. Nobody that is capable of finding work should be left to rot and be subjected to months or years of economic inactivity which often happens through no real fault of their own, especially if they happen to be disabled or from an ethnic minority. However I think most working class voters do understand and believe in improving the rights of all people in the UK as long as a convincing case can be made to them. They just want to feel more involved in the decision making process. So Labour has to commit to being transparent and accountable to the electorate when it comes to deciding how they would spend taxpayers money to fund benefits.

    Immigration:
    Labour candidates need to engage more positively and openly with its working class voters when it comes to discussing immigration reform. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott is right to say that there is a need to debunk the myth that Labour operated an open door immigration policy; membership of the EU in recent years has meant there had to be an acceptance of its freedom of movement principle but there was no deliberate attempt by Labour to encourage high levels of immigration into the UK. Eurosceptics have said that Labour are to blame for the influx of EU migrants because they did not advocate for restrictions into the numbers of Poles being allowed to come and work in the UK for the first year after Poland joined the EU in 2004. The increase in immigration following the enlargement of the EU was unforeseen and I think that border controls guards and immigration administrative personnel should have been increased in the years following Poland's entry into the EU so that there was better monitoring of numbers.

    Labour tried to mitigate the effects of immigration on public services by providing a Migrant Impact Fund, which Corbyn wants to re-establish should he become PM. The fund would be created by introducing modest surcharges on immigration visas, not increasing income tax and would help fund more teaching assistants, more nurses and more GPs in areas such as Boston and Skegness. If more voters knew that the MIF would not cost taxpayers a penny and would help fund more local public services, they may be more support on the doorstep for Corbyn's approach to immigration. He is right to suggest that arbitrary targets dreamt up by Theresa May, current Home Secretary Amber Rudd et al for net immigration post-Brexit are doomed to fail. The focus as Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has noted should be on upskilling the local population to ensure current skills gaps identified by local SMEs can be addressed without the need to source labour from abroad. Also there has to be an attempt to prosecute agencies and employers who exploit migrant labour by paying them below the National Living Wage and denying them workers rights. If employers realise they must pay the NLW and adhere to the regulations such as making sure workers have access to adequate health care and food preparation facilities, they may be more likely to look for workers from their local area. Again it may seem that Labour are a bit "wishy washy" on promising definitive reforms but at least it is a step in the right direction!

    Education:
    Whilst there are no grammar schools in the City of Lincoln itself, there are a number dotted across Lincs. It is important therefore that any Labour candidate who stands for election in Lincs shows that they appreciate the work done by all schools in their potential constituency to help students pass key exams and prepare them for their working lives. Labour may oppose Theresa May's plan which seems to favour funding for grammar schools over comprehensive ones but candidates need to tell potential voters what a Labour Government would focus on to improve attainment outcomes, especially for SEN pupils in mainstream schools and working class boys who seem to have been left behind in real years.

    Jeremy Corbyn's position seems to be that he wants to create a "national education service" designed to provide learning opportunities "from cradle to grave". Corbyn's a critic of forced academisation because he believes there is no evidence to suggest turning comprehensives into academies helps to improve educational performance and it sounds like he would bring all academics back under local authority control. Local Labour candidates would need to think carefully about whether they agreed with this position. Corbyn also states that he wants to reduce class sizes to under 30, abolish charitable status for private and public schools, abolish tuition fees and reinstating the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) funding EMAs by increasing corporation tax by 1.5% . Corbyn also wants to fund more adult learning courses such as ESOL for migrants by increasing corporation tax by 2%.  I'd say that reinstating EMA is achievable and would be broadly popular with working class rural voters but they would be sceptical about Corbyn's other policies; they seem too good to be true!

    A recent education policy announced by Corbyn was the creation of an Arts Premium for every primary school child in England, an extra £160m of funding to allow working class children an opportunity to learn a musical instrument or engage in more painting/sculpting activities. Whilst I'm glad to see Corbyn take an interest in promoting the need to allow children to develop their creative skills to help shape their social skills, it isn't at the forefront of most voters' minds. Labour do need to make sure they also focus on promoting STEM subjects in schools, ensure that there are enough qualified teachers to deliver a strong curriculum that will allow all students regardless of gender, ability level or social background to achieve their best and ensure that teachers feel able to carry on working within the profession 5 years after they qualify by offering further training and development opportunities and opportunities for promotion. If voters can see that their local Labour candidate values the contribution that all teachers make towards improving educational attainment, they may be more likely to vote for them at a GE.

    Transportation:
    Labour now seems committed to full scale re-nationalisation of the railways. Quite how this will happen is open to interpretation. Jim Clarke said in an interview with The Lincolnite that it should happen gradually- as each contract ends the Government takes on the responsibility for running train services for the region. I've not heard any MP completely express Labour's transport position to the electorate in plain, clear language so no wonder voters didn't know whether to take Mr Clarke at his word on this. Voters do care about upgrading railway lines to help reduce travel time, upgrade rolling stock so nobody travels in an unsafe carriage and reduce ticket prices to make it more affordable for rural working class graduates to consider entry level posts outside of their area. On the Jeremy Corbyn 4 Labour website, Corbyn claims that nationalisation will allow ticket prices to be cut by 10% yet Labour's local candidate did not even quote this figure in a discussion over transport infrastructure! If Labour is to convince voters that renationalisation of the railways is a good idea, candidates need to point to the example of East Coast which helped deliver £1bn in funding for the Treasury and consistently kept rail fares down until it was reprivatized under the Coalition Government. It may only be one example but it is not talked about enough at the grassroots level.

    Corbyn also talks about setting up municipal bus companies that would be run by local councils who can provide more rural bus services for residents who rely on public transport to visit their friends and relatives or do their banking in person. He says that he will provide funding for this by unlocking £500m every year. Voters in Sleaford and North Hykeham talked about the lack of regular bus services between villages and Sleaford and Lincoln and they would appreciate any attempt to increase their services provided that it was deliverable. I do wonder if Mr Clarke had talked about this policy on the doorstep he might have done better with voters?!


    Law And Order:
    Voters in Lincolnshire are deeply concerned about crime rates in the countryside; the county has the highest rates of rural crime than anywhere else in England; rural crime cost farmers more than £2.4m in 2015. Thefts of Quad Bikes, combine harvesters and livestock are mostly covered by agricultural insurance but this only pushes up premiums for all farmers in the Lincs area at a time when farmers are struggling to keep their farms operational in a globally competitive market. Residents in villages such as Ruskington and Osbournby worry about their safety at night with the increasing number of street lights being turned off by the County Council so are naturally concerned about the visible decline in police presence.  A vote winner for UKIP on the doorsteps of Sleaford and North Hykeham was the promise of more "bobbies on the beat" and advocating for increased funding from Government to fund more rural crime units to keep farmers and villagers safe. Labour at a national level needs to talk tough on rural crime to show that it is committed to protecting farmers. At a local level, Labour candidates need to go beyond talking about funding issues ( voters know that funding cuts have led to at least a 10% cut in police officer numbers and 7% cut in PCSOs since the Tories came to power in 2010). Candidates need to question the way policing issues are being handled by the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, Marc Jones;  for example, should Labour oppose the G4S contract that was negotiated by Lincs Police 2012 when it comes up for renewal? If Labour under Corbyn are opposed to privatisation of public services in general, this seems obvious! Should Labour be asking that PCSOs be more involved in tackling speeding crimes and rural crimes, being able to issue penalty notices to troublemakers within their own communities?

    Conclusion:

    Whilst it is important to keep voters on side RE the NHS, voters need other reasons to turn out and vote for the Labour party. To find out which issues matter to local residents, Labour grassroots members have to continue to knock on doors, organising meetings in community centres, libraries and WIs across Lincolnshire. Labour campaigning cannot just be done online via social media, via articles from activists or relying on Momentum or Progress to take ownership of voter engagement. All "wings" of the Labour party, especially UKIP-Labour and Conservative-Labour converts (if they are even allowed back into the party) should be involved. Voters want contact with their local political parties for more than 5 minutes on a doorstep on a Wednesday morning before an election. Voters in Lincolnshire want to feel that their voices are being heard by "those that matter". Getting more Labour candidates into parish/district councils in Lincolnshire's rural heartlands is key to developing voter engagement strategies. If you don't have a strong, sustained base of support that willingly votes to increase Labour representation at a local level, you're not going to motivate them to go to the polls to vote for a Labour MP at a general election. So those wanting to be Labour candidates have to come from the local area, involve themselves willingly by going out and asking their friends and neighbours for their thoughts and opinions and be prepared to answer any difficult questions that may arise. Be prepared to differ from the Labour leadership but be prepared to give your reasons why you disagree with them on specific policies. Show awareness of Labour's key policies in the first place!