Are Labour's target seats missing the mark? Photo: Flickr/
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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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En français, s'il vous plaît! EU lead negotiator wants to talk Brexit in French

C'est très difficile. 

In November 2015, after the Paris attacks, Theresa May said: "Nous sommes solidaires avec vous, nous sommes tous ensemble." ("We are in solidarity with you, we are all together.")

But now the Prime Minister might have to brush up her French and take it to a much higher level.

Reuters reports the EU's lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, would like to hold the talks in French, not English (an EU spokeswoman said no official language had been agreed). 

As for the Home office? Aucun commentaire.

But on Twitter, British social media users are finding it all très amusant.

In the UK, foreign language teaching has suffered from years of neglect. The government may regret this now . . .

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.