Sean Hannigan makes the case for Labour to win over English voters with a distinct English policy offer.
Labour is finally riding high in the polls, with consistent double-digit poll leads since the Liz Truss debacle last October. This is welcome news, and we may have a Labour majority government after 13 years. But we cannot be complacent. Keir Starmer has staked much of Labour’s recovery on winning seats in Scotland from the SNP, although only 59 of the 650 Westminster parliamentary seats are in Scotland. This is set to decline to 57 by the next election. Similarly, our friends Wales will lose 8 Westminster seats and have only 32. Together, Wales and Scotland hold just 14% of parliamentary seats. Northern Ireland has only 2% of Westminster MPs, where Labour does not field candidates.
England, meanwhile, will see its Westminster parliamentary representation rise by 10 MPs, to 543, taking an overwhelming 84% of seats. This must not be forgotten. Labour would need 227 seats in England if they won every seat in Scotland and Wales under the new boundaries - a highly unlikely scenario, given Plaid and SNP dominance in certain regions. Labour rightly talks about gaining parliamentary legitimacy through winning back seats lost in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain, but we cannot win power without winning a majority in England.
England: Labour’s Lost Voters
Former Communities Secretary John Denham has pointed out that Labour has not won the most votes of English-identifying people since 2001. Since 2005, more English-identifying voters have moved towards the Conservatives. Labour still won a majority of seats in England in 2005, partly because not all people who live in England identify as more English than British, and the two overlap. But this gap between more English-identifying voters and Labour votes in England has diverged. It has widened so much that English-identifying voters were with Boris Johnson in 2019 by 50 points. England was also the country in the union which brought us out of the EU. Some of the highest votes to Leave were in many now-former Labour heartlands. Bolsover, County Durham, Barnsley, Doncaster - the same places which either voted for the Brexit Party in the largest number, or were won by the Conservatives from Labour, many for the first time this side of 1945. These are also areas with the highest number of English-identifying voters.
But why? In 2019, Labour managed to lose 60 seats, many in places which we had held for decades, through the Thatcher years and beyond. Voters in these places are more likely to be older, whiter, and with a strong sense of national sovereignty. They are also in places which lost out from deindustrialisation, and had little to replace the jobs and pride in their working class communities. Labour was already losing these places in declining voter turnout since the early 2000s. But the view was that these voters ‘had nowhere else to go’ - they certainly would not vote Tory. How wrong this was.
The Path to Power
Labour has never won a general election without winning the most seats in Scotland and Wales too. This may be about to change, given current polling north of the border. While Keir Starmer rightly wants to be a Prime Minister for the whole of the United Kingdom, and has placed the legitimacy of his future Labour government on winning seats back in Scotland, we must remember who Labour has lost in England - the largest part of the United Kingdom.
England is the nation which gave us Thatcher, Major, and the last 13 years of Conservative government. England is the country which brought us out of the EU. England is also the only nation with no exclusive national body to deal with England-only issues, nor a centre-left party which speaks exclusively for it.
During UK-wide general elections, Labour publishes manifestos for Wales and for Scotland, detailing policies which it would implement for these nations respectively. They are crafted with the leaders of their respective national Labour parties, alongside their NECs. With the introduction of devolved legislatures at the end of the 1990s, this has made sense to produce nation-specific manifestos. It has also meant that, by default, England has a swathe of domestic policy subsumed within the British parliament in Westminster. If Labour were to publish a manifesto for England, we could begin to address these English-specific concerns. We could speak directly to voters who have tended, for the last twenty years, not to vote for us.
Mapping an English Labour Majority
Introducing English manifestos alongside our Scottish, Welsh, and UK-wide general election manifestos will not instantly resolve all our electoral issues. But they may be a first step to solidifying Labour’s recovery in parts of England which have trended away from us over these past decades. We cannot simply rely on the Conservatives botching the job. Notably for Leave voters in these areas who have a strong sense of national sovereignty, it could signal to them that Labour is ‘starting to get it’. An English manifesto could address primarily domestic concerns on health, education, other public services, and poverty reduction - all solid Labour issues. We could force the Conservatives onto Labour territory, and make English issues synonymous with Labour policy. It could be the start of something bigger.
Sean Hannigan is the Youth Officer for Gipsy Hill & West Dulwich Branch (Dulwich & West Norwood CLP) as well as the joint Campaigns Coordinator for the branch. Previously, he stood as the Labour candidate in Benson & Cholsey division in the Oxfordshire County Council elections in 2021, the division where he grew up. He works for Political Quarterly, alongside supporting event management for the English Labour Network @englabnet.