Labour starts to panic, and rightly so

Sheer panic has gripped Labour, as their almost incomprehensibly daft electoral "strategy" suggests. Let's indeed hope that Miliband continues to be as incompetent as an electoral strategist as he was as a minister

Right not to be calm
Andrew Gibson
On 30 November 2014 09:06

The Labour leadership has been fighting the 2015 election campaign under a strategy that is so half-baked that even the loyalists are starting to choke on it. In November, to gauge the mood in the Labour camp, I went to a public meeting of Progress, the think tank on the centre-right of the party.

All mention of “Ed” was respectful but nervy. They are right to be panicked.

Item one on Labour’s laundry list of fear is its targeting strategy. Launched a year ago, Labour’s plan is reportedly to win 40 per cent of the vote and to target 106 seats (winning around 70 net gains would give Labour a slender majority). Resources are being taken out of the neighbouring seats and ploughed into the favoured 106.

Astonishingly, none of the targeted seats are currently Labour held. That is to say, seats such as Hampstead and Kilburn (majority 42) and Bolton West (majority 92) are being left to their own devices. Indeed, in theory their activists should be helping neighbouring target constituencies.

While the Tories pursue a “40-40” strategy, focusing on 40 “at risk” seats and 40 “potential gains”, Miliband is assuming that all current Labour seats are in the bag.

Despite his shift to the left and the rise of the SNP, Greens and UKIP, Miliband seems convinced he has the 2010 Labour vote “banked”, and can rely on it to be augmented by left-leaning former Lib Dems.

In Scotland, Labour’s strategy assumes the party will hold all its seats and it is targeting a further five potential wins. Scottish frontbenchers are asked to help in English seats such as Burton and Carlisle. I wonder what the Scottish Labour Party thinks of that?

To see how this electoral road map is playing out among Labour’s MPs, take a look at Dudley North. A life-long activist and a Brownite, Dudley’s Ian Austin MP is exactly the sort of politico that should fit right into the Miliband regime. But what is this? Austin has been making UKIPy noises about immigration, asserting that Labour should “apologise” for its past policies.

Yes, now he is contrite. And could that contrition be not unadjacent to the fact that he has a majority of just 649, and garnered a mere 39 per cent of votes cast in 2010?

What might Austin think of a strategy that demands he and his team leave Dudley North to go help his target-seat neighbours?

Another worry for Labour is the “sophomore effect”. Incumbents have a small electoral advantage over challengers (due to name recognition, taxpayer-financed staff, etc.), yet there is evidence that new MPs standing for re-election for their first time even outperform the incumbents’ average. That's the “sophomore effect”.

In contrast to 2010, the benefits of incumbency and the sophomore effect will favour the (more numerous) sitting Conservatives next May.

So, how was the mood at the Progress meeting? The agenda was centred on a report about London’s poor, and the top table spoke to that theme in an informed way. The panel comprised Steve Reed MP, Claire Kober (Leader, Haringey council), the pollster Deborah Mattinson, and Rupa Huq (a PPC).

Their unease about the national picture was clear.

When a woman expressed concern about the Mansion Tax, none of the elected or candidate panellists put the case for the levy. Instead, they described it as a work-in-progress, by no means the finished article, and they were concerned that the impost would be seen as a “tax on London.” It was left to pollster Mattinson to put Labour’s case for the tax.

Mattinson was the most interesting participant. Time and again she cited her research that found Labour was not trusted on economic issues. Labour couldn’t get a hearing on tax-and-spend subjects because the credibility is just not there.

Progress’ view of Labour’s electoral strategy is perhaps best articulated by the fact that the think tank is creating an alternative, or supplementary, strategy of its own, targeting Tory seats where the incumbent is standing down after one term and thereby foregoing the sophomore effect.

Whatever one’s hopes are for the outcome of the 2015 election, for economic liberals surely the worst outcome is any Government headed by Ed Miliband. It is inconceivable that Labour’s strategy hasn’t been modified in recent weeks, but Labour has lost valuable campaigning time on a misconceived plan.

Let us hope that Miliband continues to be as incompetent as an electoral strategist as he was as a minister.

Andrew Gibson is an occasional contributor to The Commentator

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