Are Labour's target seats missing the mark? Photo: Flickr/viZZZual.com
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Polling shows support for Ed Miliband in target seats – but are they really targets?

Polling released today shows 75.8 per cent of Labour councillors in the party's 106 target seats support their leader. But how significant are Labour's targets?

Some cheering numbers at last for Ed Miliband. Polling released today by Anglia Ruskin University's Labour History Research Unit shows significant support for the Labour leader – whose leadership has come sharply into question over the past fortnight – among councillors in both Labour's target seats and those seats most vulnerable to a Tory swing.

The polling finds, contrary to what we've been reading about rumblings in the PLP, that the majority of Labour's ground troops are happy with Miliband as their leader. When asked whether or not he should resign if the media monstering of Miliband and his tumble down the opinion polls continues, 75.8 per cent of Labour councillors in the party's 106 target seats said no, and 72.6 per cent in their 50 so-called defending seats said no. Also, 78.9 per cent in target seats and 80 per cent in defending seats put their leader's recent problems down to the press "whipping up a story", rather than a poor performance.

And although the respected Labour MP and former cabinet minister Alan Johnson has unequivocally ruled himself out as a potential replacement, 59.8 per cent of target seat councillors and 60.6 per cent of defending seat councillors said Miliband would be a greater asset than Johnson as leader, come May 2015.

These must be encouraging findings for Miliband. Often neglected by those observing a party's fortunes through the warped Westminster lens, support on the ground is crucial for a party to remain afloat. For example, Ukip insiders have told me in the past that defections of local activists from the Conservatives to their party has been significantly more useful when out campaigning than high-profile MP defections. So support from councillors, though it doesn't sound glamorous, is crucial.

However, it is time to question the significance of Labour's 106 target seats. In January last year, the party unveiled a list of constituencies it would be targeting in the build-up to the general election. According to LabourList at the time, these seats were decided using national swing, demographic and regional vote share models, and the results of local elections. Four out of five seats on the list are currently Tory-held.

Yet with such massive shifts in the political landscape since January 2013, a number of their targets look unwinnable. For example, Thurrock – the party's second top target – went from a sure win for Labour (the Tory incumbent has 92 votes) to a three-way marginal, with Ukip polling top.

On top of this, the Spectator's Isabel Hardman reported in February this year that Labour HQ was not as optimistic as Miliband about Labour's chances regarding its target list, and was secretly attempting to scale the number down from 106 to as few as 60, or 80. 

The newest development in this story emerged last week. I heard from a Labour MP that those attending a near-mutinous PLP meeting in the Northwest last Tuesday evening discussed cutting down the number of Labour's target seats, due to Miliband's unpopularity making it increasingly less likely that many of them could ever be won. "There is a problem with the leader, so we'll have to discard some of our targets," my source revealed. "Because the leader is doing that badly, it's such a turn-off. So we'll have to stop putting resources [in certain target seats]".

The party will have to focus more on simply "defending" the vulnerable seats it already holds, "rather than trying to win new ones", the meeting apparently concluded. I hear such seats include Bolton West, where the Labour MP Julie Hilling has a majority of 92. It's in shaky Labour holds like these where MPs could be most damaged by their constituents criticising Miliband on the doorstep, even if their councillors appear to be onside.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue