Are Labour's target seats missing the mark? Photo: Flickr/
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.