Reflections on GE2015 in Northfield and Labour’s challenges for the future


Just over two weeks ago, Labour members and supporters -old and new – met at the Factory Youth Centre in Longbridge to discuss our victory in Birmingham Northfield, our defeat nationally and the challenges and opportunities facing Labour over  the coming five years.

Workshops were on themes ranging from low pay to housing; from children and young people to the economy and the role of the private sector. Reports from the workshops are being written up and will help inform both Labour’s work in South west Birmingham and our contribution to policy making nationally.

I opened the event with some personal reflections on the election and on the future. Here is what I said:


Reflections on this year’s General Election in Northfield and Labour’s challenges for the future
– Opening speech Northfield by Richard Burden MP to meeting of Labour members and supporters at The Factory Youth Centre, Longbridge, July 3rd 2015

Here in Northfield, May 7th was a night of good news and bad news.

The good news was that we won here. This was a seat which Tories targeted – big time. They spent thousands upon thousands. For them it wasn’t so much an election but a giant marketing operation, selling voters an image of the Tory candidate as local resident, just like them.

A Conservative MP told me in the Commons recently that they had “thrown the kitchen sink” at Northfield. Well it did not work. The kitchen sink bounced off and the proof is there – as we saw Conservative candidate’s Northfield “home” was on the market just a few weeks after polling day.

So what were Northfield’s results?

At just over 2,500, our Parliamentary majority was not hugely different from 2010. In numbers terms: the majority was down by a couple of hundred. Our share of vote was up by a little over one per cent.

In the Birmingham City Council elections across the constituency, the Labour vote was down a bit on what we achieved in the General Election, but we still won three out of four wards, including a victory which saw Steve Booton winning Weoley for Labour for the first time in decade.

And, although we did not win in Northfield ward, we still saw a big increase in the Labour vote there. Well done, Robbie Lea-Trengrouse and team.

There is other good news since the election too with a big increase in the number of people joining Labour. At the last count I saw, membership nationally is up by over 41,000. And there are lots of new members here in Northfield too.

So the good news is there. But we all know May 7th brought bad news as well.

Labour lost and we lost badly nationally. We did OK in London and big cities but outside those areas it was a different story. And, of course we faced a near wipe-out in Scotland.

That leaves us with a very large mountain to climb. Not only to win back seats in England that we failed to win in 2015, but to do so in the knowledge that many of these seats now have increased Tory majorities.

Here in Northfield, we can take credit for an important victory. Labour’s share of vote was up on 2010. But let’s not forget that Labour’s share of the vote here had been dropping consistently between 1997 and 2010. It is still well below our 1997 level.

The turnout this year in Northfield was the highest we have seen since 1997. That is good news. But still let us not forget that just over 40% of voters did not cast votes at all in what was predicted to be a very close fought election. That is nearly 30,000 people living around here.

All this underlines that there are many people out there who just don’t feel the world of politics is relevant enough to their lives for them to go out and vote.

That disaffection with mainstream politics is not just revealed in the numbers who did not vote. UKIP played on that sense of disaffection too. Across Northfield, their vote over in the Parliamentary election was over 16%. In quite a few areas in the constituency, it was more than 20%.

This evening is about trying to make sense of all this. About starting to understand what has happened and why.

Voters can choose what parties they vote for and which they don’t vote for. Parties cannot choose a new electorate.

So it is our responsibility to understand what is being said to us and to respond.

In some cases, that may mean trying to change people’s perceptions of us. In other cases it will mean changing our practice. In many cases it will be a combination of the two.

In the coming weeks Labour’s Leadership candidates will be telling you their ideas on some of these things.

We will all make our individual decisions about who to vote for.

Northfield is already going for the each way bet, with me backing Yvette Cooper and my agent, Brett O’Reilly going for Andy Burnham!

Others here today may make different decisions from either of us.

It will of course be an important election but what I want to say tonight is that no individual candidate standing for neither Leader nor Deputy will have all the answers. It’s got to be about more than who leads us. And that is why tonight’s discussion is so important.

So here are some thoughts from me.

I was first elected in 1992 and May 7 this year brought back a lot of memories of that 1992 election and why we did not win then when a lot of people predicted we would.

I remember another Parliamentary candidate I was talking to at that time saying something I thought was very perceptive. He said that after Labour appearing unelectable in the 1980s, Neil Kinnock had got us to stage where people thought they could vote Labour. It was possible. They wouldn’t go blind if they did.

The trouble was, he said, that we never reached the stage where people thought they should vote Labour. And the difference between “could” and “should” proved crucial.

Because while people were at the stage where they would listen, they still did not believe in us.  They did not identify with us to the extent that they would not be taken in when Tories adopted sensationalist campaign to scare them off Labour. But in both 1992 and 2015 people were scared off.

In 1992 the scare was about tax. There were billboards which appeared all over the country in which the Tories warned everybody that they would pay an extra £1000 in tax if Labour got in.

It was not true, of course, but that didn’t matter. The scare worked. Theb result was that Labour lost nationally in 1992, even though we won here in Northfield.

It feels like there are parallels in the 2015 election. Maybe the verbs about “should” and “could” need to be reversed but the parallels are there.

This time I think many people felt they should vote Labour: 

They did not like zero hours contracts. They do think the bedroom tax is unfair and they wanted it abolished. And they wanted to defend the NHS. All of these things made people feel that they should vote Labour.

But when it came to the vote, too many felt they couldn’t vote Labour because, once again, the Tory scare stories had worked.

This time, it was not posters about Tax bombshells. This time, it was the impression that Labour could not be trusted with economy.

For five years, the Tories had been absolutely relentless in claiming that the last Labour Government had crashed the economy; that the global recession which followed the 2008 crash was actually “Labours recession”

It was not true. The last Labour Government may have done a lot of things but it did not control the USA subprime market or the collapse of Lehman Brothers over there.

But we let the narrative get away from us for too long.

After the 2010 election we did not fight back enough against the Tories’ narrative about what had caused the recession because we thought our route back to power would come from charting a new future, not dwelling on the recent past. We were wrong about that. We should have done both.

By not doing so we allowed the Tories to get their narrative established as fact in the media and in people’s minds even though it was not, in reality, true.

And having established over 5 years that that Labour could not be trusted with the economy as “fact”, in the General Election the Tories were able to get a hearing for a few more scare stories to seal the deal that you could not trust Labour at all.

How else, in the last weeks of the campaign, could we have seen people saying they were worried about voting Labour here in the centre of England because the SNP might beat Labour North of the border?

Most commentators were predicting that no Party would win an overall majority at the election but somewhere along the line the impression stuck that a minority Labour government would somehow be “pushed around” by the SNP whereas a minority Tory government would not.

When voters put these worries to me, I sometimes asked them what it was that they were particularly concerned we would be pushed around on. Often they did not know. But in the end that did not matter. The impression was there that minority Labour Government would be “weak” and therefore voting Labour was a risk too far.

There are two things I take from this.

The first is that scare stories work if you don’t effectively rebut them – as in the case of “Labour’s recession”.

The second is that for voters to trust what you are saying rather than the scare story they have to believe in you.

For me, that means people believing not simply in Labour as an organisation fighting elections, but believing in what we are for. It means our projecting a clear vision of the kind of society we want to build and how we would go about doing it.

In neither 1992 nor in 2015 did we do that effectively.

It was as if people saw the sentences – about zero hour contracts, about the bedroom tax, about the NHS and so on. But they never saw the paragraph of which those sentences were meant to be part.

Contrast that with 1997. In that election, Labour’s specific promises on our famous 1997 Pledge Card were very modest. The sentences, if you like, while important, were not game changing.

But the paragraph which Labour projected was a lot more inspiring. It was not simply about a change of Government or about new policies. It was about a “New Britain.” Times were changing and Labour projected itself as a new mission in tune with the times. It chimed with people’s experiences and people felt optimistic about voting Labour. We had won the heart and we had the mind together.

None of this is to suggest that we can or should attempt to a re-run of 1997. The world has moved on and loss of trust in politics is so much more profound today than it was back in 1997.

Indeed, for all the success of New Labour in winning hearts and minds in 1997, and notwithstanding the real achievements of Labour Governments between then and 2010, we must also accept that the Blair and Brown governments also ended up contributing to public disaffection with politics, particularly after 2001.

So we should not be starry-eyed about the New Labour years. But making sure our politics tell a story that people can relate to remains as important as it ever did.

Of course, for people to believe in us, it is not only about what we say but also about what we do.

Outside Scotland,  we found it easier to hang on to seats already held – even when the Tories outspent us and mounted a serious challenge – than to win marginal Tory seats – even in those where we had great candidates and strong party organisation.

Incumbency is important.

But it only makes a real difference if we are real to people. Real so that people know we are there for them, not that we are only interested in them being there for us; or, more accurately, in their votes being there for us.

We have all heard so often “We only see you at election time.” We have got to prove in practice that this is not the case.

So there are lessons to act on there as well about building a new   relationship between party and voters. Yes, we want to govern – whether it be in the Council or in Westminster.

But people also need to see that we are about making change locally, whether or not we are in Government.

It’s about being advocates.  About being mobilisers. About being there week in week out. Year in, year out.

Of course this brings its own challenges. Because it never stops. Because the more you do, the higher people’s expectations get.

Just look at casework. My office has got a pretty good reputation for the work we do. Not only in taking up cases in the first place, but following them up, not taking no for an answer, and keeping in touch with the people we help.

But you know what? That means we have got to be better still. That means me. It means every Councillor, every candidate too, asking ourselves some serious questions. About how we can provide a better service to the people we represent.  About whether we really do have a clear vision for the Northfield area.

And if we do have clarity of vision, what in practice are we saying and doing to make it happen? What are the alliances we are building to underpin it? Are we telling people about it and are we listening to what they say to us?

These are profound challenges for all of us. And they are not only questions for elected representatives to address. Labour can only be effective can only if all of us feel part of what we are trying to do. That means members and supporters as well as Councillors and MPs.

And in that, the input of new members and supporters is particularly valuable. Sometimes, by being new, you can see the wood more clearly when those of us who have been around for a long time can only see the trees

That is why it is great to see so many new faces here tonight and why I hope tonight’s meeting can be a new start. To build towards keeping the seats we hold in next year’s election and to winning new ones, to work out how we can best minimise the damage here in Northfield that five years of Tory rule will mean for our country, and to make sure that their time in office is as short as possible.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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