Yesterday I headed down to Basingstoke to meet with my good friend, Cllr Paul Harvey, and learn about the local Labour party’s ten-year rebuilding project. When he’s not teaching tomorrow’s tacticians about military strategy, Paul is the Labour group leader on Basingstoke and Deane Council. He is also a former Labour parliamentary candidate and council leader.
Why am I interested in Basingstoke and the project of rebuilding Labour there? Simple, really. It’s because, if we ever want Labour to govern again, we need to be competing in places like Basingstoke, and to do so, we need to take votes off the Tories. We will know if the strategy and tactics we use will work nationally if, and only if, we can start to make progress in places as true blue as Hampshire. This is the ultimate litmus test. Personally, I think we will find out much more about how to make Labour electable again in the places where it is most unelectable, as opposed to in the places we still naively call ‘safe.’
As Paul drove us around the place once disparagingly dubbed by someone as ‘Boringstoke’, he described the tortuous decline of Labour support which he had seen take place there since the heyday of New Labour. Although Labour has never taken the seat of Basingstoke, it came mightily close in 1997 and again in 2001 (there were a couple of thousand votes in it each time). By 2015, however, our vote was even lower than it had been in 2005. A similar picture, of course, was repeated across the country where Labour faced off against the Tories, somehow defying the basic rule of British politics that sitting governments don’t increase their vote share after being in power for five years.
But in Basingstoke, there have been victories contained within these defeats. Echoing sentiments I recently expressed in a piece about the long road back for Labour, Paul described the twenty-year project – split into two ten-year spans – which he and his colleagues have been busily working on since Labour lost power in 2010. The plan, which Paul described to me on an hour-long car journey around the many mini-villages within the town of Basingstoke has at its heart a very simple precept: that, as Ryan Maynes argued recently on this site, we must re-fashion Labour as the party of community.
Slowly, Labour have been making gains here at local level, against the grain of Hampshire more broadly. At our nadir in 2010, Labour had just 9 councillors on Basingstoke and Deane Council. Mainly by driving the Liberals to near-extinction during the coalition years, Labour has now advanced to 20 councillors. Paul is optimistic that we can get to 23 councillors at next year’s elections. A majority on the Council requires 31 councillors – not as far away as it might sound, given how quickly local politics can change.
Now, here’s the thing. Labour is confounding political gravity in Basingstoke. In most parts of Hampshire, Labour has become all-but-irrelevant. But in Basingstoke, Labour is deliberately and explicitly localising itself. The Liberals exploited this tactic to great effect for many years before they were crushed between 2010 and 2015, skilfully moulding their local parties to suit the communities in which they are based, rather than trying to lecture those communities on how they should be shaped.
Local sources estimate that, in Basingstoke, 30% of those who vote Labour locally would vote Tory nationally. I’d rather that wasn’t true, but at least that gives Basingstoke Labour a platform to build on. This is exactly how the Liberals built their support over many years. First came the councillors. Then came the council control. Then came the MPs. This strategy worked because, by the time decent candidates came along, the Liberals were viewed as the local party, while the Tories and Labour were seen as comparably aloof and distant.
As much as I wish we had nothing to learn from the Liberals, with Labour performing so badly nationally, this model should be seen as instructive. Basingstoke Labour has so far swept the north of the town. In time, it will make inroads in the south. And if the plan comes off, once it has taken the town, it will begin to win in some of the villages surrounding the town itself. Then, at long last, Basingstoke will be represented by Labour once again.
The Tories may laugh at notions of Labour winning Basingstoke. They would do well to remember, however, that supremacy never lasts – a lesson Labour has had to learn repeatedly in the last few years. If Labour is rebuild, it must learn once more to speak in ways that can cut through in places like Basingstoke. Thankfully, in Paul Harvey and his Basingstoke Labour colleagues, it seems that endeavour is well underway.