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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.