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28 January 2011

Harman: Labour should capitalise on southern anger

Resources could be diverted from the north to previously unwinnable council seats in the south in Ma

By Samira Shackle

Harriet Harman has suggested that Labour might switch some of its focus and limited resources from its northern heartlands to the south in the May local elections.

She told the Guardian:

There are large areas where people have voted Lib Dem as the progressive choice but perhaps now they are unlikely to want to vote with a party that has broken so many of their promises.

One of our key aims is to ensure we are fielding candidates across the country – even in those areas where we may not have previously done very well – to ensure people have the option of voting Labour. There is a great deal of indignation and we will be people’s voice in these tough times.

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On 5 May, 9,330 council seats will be contested – representing about 80 per cent of England’s councils. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly will also face elections.

Many of the seats in the south of England have essentially become Tory-Liberal Democrat battlegrounds in recent years. These seats – in the south-west, south and east of England – represent 4,800 seats, of which only 460 are held by Labour. According to one estimate, nearly half of the councils in the south-east do not have a single Labour councillor. While Labour has a strong base of support in the north, there are only 900 seats being contested in the north-west.

Harman sets out the Labour strategy of presenting itself as the only real alternative to the coalition, and displacing the Lib Dems where the party was previously seen as the progressive choice. This is certainly a strategy that could have legs – but it is not a dead cert. As we saw in the Oldham by-election, where the Liberal Democrats did not suffer as much of a battering as was widely expected, Tory supporters of the coalition might be happy to vote tactically to keep Labour out.

A poll yesterday gave Labour a 10-point lead over the Conservatives – a three-year high. However, complacency would be dangerous; tactics must pass beyond pointing fingers at the Lib Dems’ broken promises and into offering a credible alternative. As Andrew Rawnsley argued earlier this month:

The numbers to watch are the ratings for economic competence, which currently show Labour languishing a long way behind the coalition. Over many elections now, economic competence has been the best predictor of to whom the British people will grant power.