Tales from the cities

The Urban Vote.

To Westminster earlier this week for a Centre for Cities event on the state of parties in England's urban heartlands.

Overall, it is a gloomy picture for Labour, and Gordon Brown in particular, based on the findings of a year-long piece of analysis by Ipsos MORI. In one sense the data collected between February 2009 and February 2010 has been overtaken by events - namely the rise in popularity in of the Lib Dems and their leader Nick Clegg. But the figures remain instructive for a number of reasons, including one that may give rise to Labour optimism.

First, the study shows what the researchers call "latent" support for Clegg and his party that has now broken through. Across all the cites surveyed, Clegg enjoyed an aggregate net approval rating of 13 per cent, against 7 per cent for David Cameron and -34 per cent for Gordon Brown. Clegg's numbers will have certainly gone up; Cameron's likely to be in decline. And given today's fun and games Brown's poor ratings may yet fall lower.




Second, they show just how Labour has suffered in its traditional urban base (see figures 1 & 2). Paradoxically, "buoyant" cities such as Reading and Brighton (those with strong economies, private sector job growth and relatively high salaries) are far less likely to vote Labour in 2010 than they were in 2010, while "struggling" cities such as Hull, Stoke and Hastings remain Labour in bigger numbers.




Third, some hope for Labour. Assuming the Lib Dem surge is largely at the expense of the Conservative vote in urban areas which are home to key marginal constituencies, the Tories could be deprived of some target seats. In the Birmingham area, for example, the Tories have designs on Lib Dem-held Birmingham Hall Green and Birmingham Yardley. These have just got more difficult to win while seats such as Solihull are not beyond Nick Clegg's grasp.


Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.