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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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.