It's time for Ed Miliband to move beyond his party's "heartland" comfort zone. Photo: Getty
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Labour neglects English marginal seats at its peril – it can't just appeal to its "heartlands"

Labour does best in places worst hit by the recession, but it has to branch out to enlarge its electoral base.

To have a hope of outright victory in 2015, Labour has to significantly improve its position in the southern and Midlands marginals, articulating a new economic narrative about the politics of production and supply-side modernisation.

This has been the case since Labour’s dismal 2010 election result: Labour governments were elected in 1945, 1964-6 and 1997 by amassing a broad coalition of support across regions and social classes. But there is an even greater urgency today: in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum and the growing threat posed by the UK Independence Party, Labour cannot rely on increasing its share of parliamentary seats in its "northern and Celtic heartlands".

Last week’s by-election in Rochester and Strood was always likely to be tough for Labour, squeezed between the Conservative party and Ukip. Yet this was a seat Labour held from 1997 to 2010: when previously in government, the party invariably wins here. Labour neglects the English marginal seats at its peril.

Labour and the marginals

Recent polls in the marginals commissioned by Michael Ashcroft are not all bad news for Ed Miliband. The party has maintained a lead on aggregate voting intention, while fundamentally more voters fear a "Conservative-led" government to a "Labour-led" government.

In the 11 swing constituencies Ashcroft surveyed in the past month, Labour is on course to win 10, although the general election is undoubtedly on a knife edge: in a seat such as Halesowen and Rowley Regis, the party has a lead of 1 per cent on constituency voting intention. In Nuneaton and Hove and Portslade, the leads are 3 per cent. If the election were held today, Labour would lose Gloucester by 1 per cent. The party has little room for manoeuvre: Labour urgently needs to lock in its existing support while enlarging its electoral base.

What is striking about Ashcroft’s polls is the extent of growing economic optimism in the marginal constituencies. When asked how they believed the British economy would fare in the year ahead in terms of wages, prices, jobs, taxes, and interest rates, 60 per cent of voters think the economy will do "well" for the country (63 per cent for their own family), while 36 per cent fear it will perform "badly" (34 per cent for their own family). Not surprisingly, Conservative voters are relatively optimistic, whereas Labour voters are more economically insecure. Labour is generally doing better in the marginal seats where economic pessimism is most pronounced.

However, given the trend towards an improved outlook following a protracted and painful recession, appealing to a pessimistic narrative about the economy that is unremittingly depressing and downbeat will produce limited gains for Labour. Yes, many voters have suffered as a consequence of the recession, although real wages have been severely compressed since the early 2000s. A recent Resolution Foundation report found that the number of workers earning less than the living wage has increased from 3.4m to 4.9m over the last decade.

Low-wage Britain is characterised by a culture of permanently insecure and low-paid work, combined with a higher risk of unemployment. Those who come to rely on working-age benefits are at greater risk of a life of permanent economic marginalisation and poverty, which, a recent book by Professor John Hills, Good Times, Bad Times: The Welfare Myth of Them and Us, demonstrates, are more likely than ever to be transmitted between generations. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed that those on low incomes have been disproportionately hit by rising prices. There is also significant volatility and instability in the international economy with the potential to damage UK growth, having suffered the most protracted downturn since the great depression of the Thirties.

But voters do not necessarily view their situation wholly through the prism of austerity and Labour’s story of a "cost-of-living crisis"; moreover, they are sceptical about government’s capacity to arrest the decline in wages and living standards. The focus on the cost-of-living agenda has enabled Labour to expose the paucity of the coalition’s so-called recovery, as GDP growth and real living standards have become disconnected. But as circumstances change, Labour needs to adapt and refine its message for a new context. The party cannot construct an electoral majority appealing only to those hardest hit since the crisis.

Patrick Diamond is vice-chair of Policy Network, lecturer in public policy at Queen Mary, University of London and a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. You can find his paper on Labour and the marginals here.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage