“North, south, east and west – we can absolutely do it as a party” was the rallying cry in Chuka Umunna’s launch for the Labour leadership. While his run to the top was short lived, his statement highlighted an ambition for the Labour Party to be electorally successful in every part of the country.
A lofty ambition indeed, but is there such a thing as a truly national party anymore? Is it even possible? A look at the results of the General Election and a very blue looking map disguises the fact that in each of the UK’s four nations a different party won the popular vote: Conservatives in England, Labour in Wales, SNP in Scotland and the DUP in Northern Ireland.
Within England the differences are stark. Labour won just 17.7% of the vote in the South West and 18.3% in the South East where UKIP finished a close 3.6 points behind them. The Conservatives meanwhile won around half of the votes in these regions but recorded only 25.3% in the North East.
London can almost be treated as a separate nation in itself. It might be geographically situated in the South East of England but it is politically isolated; an island of Labour constituencies amid a sea of Tory blue. In the country’s capital, Labour increased its vote share by 7.1 points, compared to a national increase of just 1.5 points.
Indeed, while Labour hold 69% of constituencies in the North of England, they have just 6% of those in the South (outside of London) and 26% across the Midlands and East of England. The priority for the next Labour campaign does not need to be the North of England because they have to find a way of appealing to the rest of the country. Trying to position oneself as different things to different parts of the country will inevitably leave you exposed. A simple, all-encompassing vision for the future, appealing to what unites rather than what divides, will stand a better chance of success than a fragmented, incoherent message. A strong national message also allows for successful “micro-targeting” at the other end of the scale. A fudged “regional targeting” would lack the cohesion needed to present yourself as a prospective party of national government.
UKIP’s crowning Election glory turned out – as we had predicted – to be winning second place in 120 constituencies rather than adding to their tally of MPs in the House of Commons. The fact remains however that although they finished second to Labour in 44 seats, the gap between them even across these seats is 33 points. So, while from the outside it looks like UKIP pose a threat to Labour in the north, it is more the case that they have crushed the Conservatives in seats the Tories probably were never looking to win anyway.
The Labour / UKIP battleground is symptomatic of the wider regionalisation of the electoral map. Across the South the traditional blue and red battleground has been inflected with spots of purple as Nigel Farage’s People’s Army marched in to pick up second places. The South West is traditionally an almost no-Labour zone, used more to seeing the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives duking it out. Now though, as the Conservatives came close to taking a clean sweep in the region, UKIP took advantage of the Liberal Democrat collapse and picked up a handful of second places.
(To see a map of all second place finishes see here.)
The reasons for these incredible regional differences are many and varied. However, a look at our economic optimism heat maps might help to tell some of the tale. Scotland has undergone a dramatic political shift, particularly since the referendum. It has also been the most pessimistic about the state of the economy. Economic turmoil can often act as a catalyst for political change, and we can now see the effectiveness of the SNP’s smartly tailored anti-austerity, anti-Westminster message.
The areas of the heat map that show the darkest green - the most positive about the state of Britain’s economy - are also where, with the exception of London, we see the darkest shades of Conservative blue. This suggests a tallying of perceptions of economic success with votes for the Conservatives.
The Labour Party are at an important juncture between their recent history and their short-term future. While some have spoken of “Lazy Labour” being the reason they lost just two weeks ago, that only masks a political strategy which failed to appeal to the key groups beyond their insufficient core. Enthusing a lethargic set of supporters will not bring victory in the South East, Midlands or the East. They must address the fact that voters in these regions resoundingly rejected a vision and an offer that was successful in increasing some existing Labour majorities but which failed to make the breakthroughs necessary to deliver success.