11 May 2021

Can Labour learn the lessons of 1992 all over again?


Twenty nine years ago, Labour suffered a defeat that few of its members expected. In 1987 they knew they were on a hiding to nothing, with Mrs Thatcher in her pomp. By the 1992 election, with John Major as PM, the party had convinced itself that victory was on its way, as the polls consistently had Labour ahead.

Far from Labour winning, Major secured the greatest number of votes any party has ever received.

Labour’s problem was clear: other than in London, it could not win in the south. South of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, it won just 10 of 177 seats. Even with London included, the party won just 45 out of the 261 seats in southern England.

This may seem like ancient history. After all, just five years later Tony Blair provided Labour with the first of three  landslides. But it is directly relevant to the situation Labour now finds itself, as a mirror image – of sorts – of its 1992 problem. Where then it could not win in the south, today it cannot win in the north (that is, of course, an exaggeration – Labour holds many northern seats; but you take my point).

And however bad Labour’s performance was in 2019, it promises to be worse next time. There are a further 30 seats where the Brexit Party, as in Hartlepool, won more votes in 2019 than the Labour majority. And of the 44 Labour seats with the smallest majority, 39 are in the north.

In the aftermath of the 1992 election, the Fabian Society published its ‘Southern Discomfort’ reports, which used focus groups in five of the southern seats Labour needed to have won to ask wavering Tory voters why they did not make the switch to Labour. The reports – which I co-authored with Giles Radice – were published over three years and did what now seems obvious: we got these voters to tell us what they thought of Labour, of its policies and of politics generally.

The focus groups were carried out by Deborah Mattinson, who provided devastating, piercing research which showed the extent of Labour’s target voters’ alienation from the party – voters without whose support Labour could not win.

It is that same Deborah Mattinson who has just been appointed as Keir Starmer’s director of strategy. Sir Keir is rightly pilloried for his actions since last Thursday’s votes. Inept barely comes close. But in appointing Ms Mattinson he has made a superb choice. Astute, principled and wise, she sees what others are blind to – and last autumn published a typically penetrating analysis of Labour’s 2019 defeat, ‘Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next’, much of which is based on similar focus group research.

Today, the use of focus groups is not so much standard as universal. All parties use them. But in 1992 it was seen as revolutionary to use them for politics. And not just revolutionary but appalling. I remember taking part in a radio broadcast with John Prescott after one of the reports was published. He was angry, yelling at me, “You might as well have gone into a pub and asked people what they think.” He thought this was a killer line, unable to comprehend that talking to people who didn’t vote for you to find out why they didn’t might be a sensible idea.

His anger was, of course, because of the findings. Much of Labour’s problem was over taxes and spending. (I have carried with me for ever the reason given as to why the Lib Dems’ policy of ‘a penny on income tax for education’ was popular with some voters. It turned out they thought it meant an extra penny in total on their tax bill.)

But the deeper reasons for voters’ refusal to vote Labour remain as relevant today as they were then.

Asked about different values, these extracts from the reports are typical:

“Equality is thought to be a Labour idea, as well as an example of Labour’s hypocrisy. ‘Labour believes that everyone should be equal – except themselves of course.’…There was unanimous agreement with the aspiration of ‘opportunity for all’. This was perceived to be a Conservative value…Few thought that ‘opportunity for all’ could be Labour nowadays: ‘Kinnock might say it but you wouldn’t believe it.’ The statement, ‘It will be vital to nurture talent and success’…was thought to be Conservative.”

As for the party itself, when asked to put down the first thing to came into their mind after hearing the words Labour Party, the most common responses were trade unions, high tax, extremism, NHS, working class, of the past, for the poor and for losers. Almost half could not think of a single positive.

Remember – these were responses in 1992 in five southern constituencies. In Red Wall seats today there would be additional themes, but these same points would also crop up.

In 1992, southern voters who had once supported Labour thought it no longer understood them or offered them anything. The specifics are different today in the Red Wall, but the notion of Labour leaving its voters is the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

In Deborah Mattinson, Keir Starmer now has an adviser who gets this completely. But that is not enough. When our ‘Southern Discomfort’ series was published, John Smith was Labour leader. He was the personification of the ‘one more heave’ approach to politics, believing that so long as Labour did nothing to frighten anyone it would walk to victory at the next election. As one backbencher at the time put it, it was, rather, sleepwalking to oblivion.

It took Tony Blair for the lessons of ‘Southern Discomfort’ to be learned and acted on. It took, in other words, a leader ruthlessly determined to make the party electable and to take on and defeat whoever stood in his way inside the party. A leader in that mould is a prerequisite.

But to stand any chance of reconnecting, Labour needs a leader who understands Red Wall voters – and, just as vitally, a leader those voters understand.

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Stephen Pollard is Editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.