Can Labour win over Cambridge?

Deriding Ed Miliband as an Oxbridge elitist is to miss the actual problem with Labour's leadership.

Deriding Ed Miliband as an Oxbridge elitist is to miss the problem with Labour’s leadership

Ed Miliband is often derided as an exemplar of the out-of touch Oxbridge academic elitist that bedevils modern politics. That may indeed be a caricature, but it does also invite an obvious question: if he’s such a geeky wonk then why is he not doing better in places like Cambridge?

Cambridge was a Labour seat until 2005 and is number 106 on the party target list. Assuming Labour fail to take eight in 10 seats in their top 100 (which seems pretty likely) they will need constituencies like Cambridge if they want even a threadbare majority.

On the face of it, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Even though the incumbent Lib Dem voted against the tuition fee rise, a university constituency like Cambridge should be eminently winnable for Miliband. In 2005 Cambridge unseated Labour’s Anne Campbell who voted for the previous rise in fees, and a 2010 photograph of Julian Huppert and Nick Clegg holding an anti-tuition fee banner has been used with regularity by the media when covering the shift in Lib Dem policy.

So far, so good.

And yet things remain on a knife-edge. Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling of Cambridge put the (weighted) voting intentions in the seat at 33 per cent Labour to 32 per cent Liberal Democrat. Less than two-thirds (63 per cent) of local Labour voters polled were prepared to state that they believed David Cameron had done a poor job and would prefer Ed Miliband as prime minister.

And only 77 per cent of Labour supporters indicated that they likely to back their party compared to 89 per cent of Lib Dems. Perhaps they will lock in for Labour in the next few months, but with an improving economic picture this can hardly be guaranteed. Labour have a good candidate in Daniel Zeichner with significant and longstanding connection to the local area, but with both UKIP (Patrick O’Flynn) and the Greens (Rupert Read) selecting credible candidates there is the potential for the Labour vote to be squeezed from both ends.

There’s a broader story here. In a perceptive Economist piece Jeremy Cliffe posited the growing divide between affluent, confident cities and an increasingly marginalised small town England. The old rigid dichotomy between Labour north and Tory south is over, and the new one is whether the parties take a communitarian or cosmopolitan stance to contemporary issues.

I certainly take the point – and Labour has indeed lent too much towards the latter rather than the former over the past fifteen years – but the dilemma goes beyond ideology.

Labour is currently caught between two stools – sounding metropolitan to Clacton and childish to Cambridge. This is certainly the product of attitudes to the EU, immigration and globalisation, but it’s more than that. The way Labour see and describe the world – both their attacks on the Tories and the positive policies they wish to implement – can too often seem out of kilter with the way people live their lives: ‘out of touch,’ as they might carp.

On the one hand, as I’ve written before, some of the ‘Old Etonian’ rhetoric regarding Cameron has probably hurt Labour in significantly middle class seats more than is always factored in (I’m not massively convinced it has the trade-off of gaining them support in the Clactons either). In many ways it’s actually less the policy and more the slightly sneery tone that Labour have adopted that puts people off. 39 per cent of the professional middle class still back the Lib Dems in Cambridge compared to the 29 per cent for Labour.

It is only amongst the working class where Labour enjoy a substantial lead over Huppert, 43 per cent to 19 per cent. Turnout in that group will be crucial, but winning 40 per cent of ‘DE’s’ wasn’t enough for Brown in 2010.

Beyond the tone, the far bigger problem for Miliband is the perception that, whatever he says, he might not actually follow through with some aspects of the interesting platform he has laid out.

A case in point is the mansion tax which, after all, will help cost Miliband’s cornerstone pledge on improving the NHS. This is an entirely reasonable policy to bolster an area where Labour already enjoy a sizeable lead. The mansion tax should not be the end of the story in shifting from income to wealth taxation, but it’s a nod in the right direction.

And yet this nod has been met by so much hand-wringing it almost serves to undermine the rationale for doing the thing in the first place. Labour have essentially seen the right’s strawman regarding the asset rich but cash poor guy who was first on the beach at Normandy and originally bought his house for two halfpennys in the 1950s, and have been panicked into offering exemptions and concessions. Labour are now trying to do a mansion tax where no one gets taxed.

Not only do the electorate see through this, but they are quite right to do so. If Boris’s sister, Thatcher’s former head of policy and the Liberal Democrats have backed the policy in the past, how much cover do Labour need to be unequivocal here?

To put this into perspective, in the relatively affluent seat of Cambridge there are around 100 properties worth over £2m. With a further dose of inflation, perhaps 250 more could join them in the course of the next parliament. Assuming two voters per household, that equates to about one Cambridge voter in a seventy potentially being affected by the mansion tax, most of whom it is reasonable to assume would not vote Labour anyway.

For the sake of a largely hostile 1.4 per cent of the electorate in such a bell-weather seat Labour have shot themselves in the foot.

But let’s be realistic: it is indeed possible that the mansion tax may hurt Labour in some London seats. PPCs there may equally want to position themselves as willing to oppose Miliband on the issue in a parliamentary vote. Fine.

What is not ideal is that the shadow cabinet should just cave in because of these demands. If Ed Miliband wants to be prime minister he will have to go eye to eye with Vladimir Putin; if he cannot appear to survive a rebuke from David Lammy or Margaret Hodge suffice to say his credibility to do so may be on the wane.

So often Miliband is regarded as a wafty academic sitting in his ivory-tower. In some sense, if only that were true. Between McCluskey and the Daily Mail the notion that he will go whichever way the wind is blowing remains difficult to shift. At some point over a year ago Miliband went from making the agenda to trailing after it, and this is far from ideal.

Six months out from polling day the Labour machine needs to up Miliband’s prime ministerial credentials. A major speech on foreign policy which namechecks Putin and Merkel. A radical domestic policy that doesn’t get lost in triangulation. A dramatic shadow cabinet change. And, dare I say it, a meaningful cut which the party base doesn’t like.

All four would be nice; two would do. Just some sense that there are some meaningful lines in the sand which aren’t just pledges to reverse existing government policy. What is clear is that equivocal leadership rarely wins elections, even in Cambridge.

Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. He published the book One Nation Britain this summer

23 Responses to “Can Labour win over Cambridge?”

  1. V Hale

    I’m not a Lib Dem by any means but I believe in judging MPs on their merits. Why want to replace a good MP with another authoritarian drone?

  2. madasafish

    I am not a traditional Labour supporter..so anything I say should be read in that context…

    But the proposed changes?
    A major speech on foreign policy? That will have zero impact. Since when has foreign policy made any difference?

    A radical domestic policy? Bit late surely. And judging by prior ones, it will end in disaster as the ramifications sink in.
    A major shadow cabinet change You mean sack Ed Balls # for the incompetent he clearly is? Other than that no-one will notice…

    a meaningful cut which the party base do not like They don’t like any cuts. And your Party has zero credibility on cuts as you have opposed every Coalition one.. but not promised to reverse them.

    # name me a serving Labour politician with any credible economic credentials. Darling is the only one and he’s leaving. So replace a loser with a beginner.. That’s not the way to convince voters.

    If this is the best you can suggest, I’d give up now if I were you.

    I still think Labour will be the largest Party by seats : the electoral system is weighted in their favour. BUT if Ed Miliband can’t run an effective Opposition, what would he do as PM?

  3. Norfolk29

    You will remember the Tories in chaos after 1997 and even electing IDS as leader in 2001, then dumping him before the 2005 election. Well, Labour elected Ed Miliband on the basis of a 7% vote on the Unions side of the Electoral College and it was obviously a mistake, but it was within the rules. Thus history usually favours the Tories who usually get power not for what they do, which is usually bad, but as a result of something bad happening on the Labour side. In 1951 it was the Korean War, in 1970 it was the belief that Labour had raised the tax rate (untrue), in 1979 it was the Winter of Discontent (caused by the Unions). In the meantime, there are millions of people who will continue to suffer if the Tories remain in power next May and whatever Ed Miliband does between now and then it is his duty to enable Labour to win power so that the current shift of wealth and power from the have-nots to the haves is halted if not reversed. I also hope that Labour gain a majority of seats and that Alex Salmon and whoever else is in contention will enable Labour to form an administration that will halt the current austerity and restore the confidence of the British people in their power to earn a living and have their place in the world appreciated. As for the Mansion Tax it is entirely possible that those who are asset rich and income poor can postpone the payment of the tax until the property is sold. And I don’t care how many of them threaten to emigrate.

  4. David Davies

    Do what, exactly, up Ed Milididdle?

  5. Gary Scott

    Sadly the reason is perception. He is no better or worse but is ‘perceived’ to have little in the way of personality and little in the way of beliefs (as opposed to policy). We’ve seen the same in other parties eg Ian Duncan Smith of the Conservatives. In this type of situation the party faithful will remain so but the ‘floating voters’ will gravitate elsewhere. Outsiders can always see this more clearly as in the case of IDS and Ken Clarke – who would’ve appealed more to the public? When it comes to looking inward we cannot see the obvious. I still believe, and don’t laugh, that those voting didn’t realise which Milliband they’d voted for! Still, with the rise of UKIP, devastation of the LibDems and the latest polling on SNP I am, for the first time, genuinely clueless to the outcome of the GE. It is all still to play for.

  6. Gary Scott

    Good point about Salmond. Labour’s previous policy at Holyrood has been one of belligerent noncooperation. Refusing to form coalitions (as did the LidDems to be fair) which was against the whole point of Holyrood’s make up pushed voters into their arms. If polls are to be believed SNP would form the third largest party and Labour would ‘seem’ to be a natural partnership but only if past differences could be put aside. A coalition would lower expectations whilst at the same time preventing the far right in the Tory and UKIP parties from further influence. At the moment, with few elected politicians, they hold the country in their sway by the fear they strike in the hearts of the Conservatives in government and therefore the Coalition Government as a whole, ie the tail wags the dog.

  7. treborc1

    The issue with Ed is he’s Labour, he’s Progress, he’s Blue Labour, he’s Purple labour and he’s New Labour, and you mix that into a cake mix what you have is a mess.

    It’s time for Ed to be what he is a leader, and those around him who are saying things like kick the Union, out because of Falkirk tell then to shove it.

    Miliband needs to sit down with the wife maybe, discuss what he’s going to do, call in Ed Ball’s and tell him your with me or your against me now them make up your mind.

    Then make some real policies and get on with it, do or die, and for god sake remember what labour is about it’s socialist, we have socialist back ground, council housing, welfare state, NHS, working class, not hard working, but working class. not affordable houses but social housing.

    Stop trying to be Blue labour be a bit of the Red Ed.

  8. Ian Duncan

    “Labour is currently caught between two stools – sounding metropolitan to Clacton and childish to Cambridge.”

    Re-read that. Do you see the implications? Do you really think you need to talk down to small town inhabitants? Like, really really?

    Is it any wonder that people, mostly the switched on working classes, are at best becoming indifferent to the Labour Party and often starting to despise it when Labour ‘thinkers’ believe they have to talk down to the plebs to get them to understand…

    It’s like UKIP haven’t provided you insular nitwits with a big enough lesson. Yes, UKIP are right wing cretins with a much bigger, nastier agenda than they let on but they do one thing so much better than Labour and Miliband; straight talking. They may be lying but they don’t talk to the voters like idiots and actually use language that regular people know and don’t sound like they’re trying out a presentation for a PPE exam.

    All that and he fact that Labour is still rammed to the gills with neliberal, centre-right pillocks and Miliband looks like he might just be suited to the job of deputy manager of a branch of Staples.

    Labour needs to identify with its core vote for its core vote to identify with the party again and that really isn’t going to happen when the party machinery is made up of spads and wonks and clueless, careerist, besuited children who think drinking a pint in the local social club or eating a bacon sarnie brings automatic working class credibility.

    Y’all have too many impossibly young, haughty graduates (PPE, usually) who go from good school to Oxbridge, to think tank, to the BBC to MP’s researcher to safe seat, as Miliband exemplifies. What you actually need is more real people with real life experience and even a vague pretence of doing a proper job that they didn’t get by knowing the right arses to kiss or having the right contacts from university.

    Labour is now a party of monochrome speak-your-jargon policy automatons, using the language of the boardroom and business because that is where it’s most comfortable, it values businessmen and corporate board members far too much and sees the working class as some alien other that it has absolutely no experience of.

    Sack Miliband, deselect the right wing careerists, replace them with candidates from the areas in which they’re standing and make them at least vaguely recognisable as human beings, not slightly wooden human being impersonators.

    Remember who the Labour Party was formed for (here’s a clue- it wasn’t half a dozen Tories in key marginals…)

  9. madasafish

    After every Government they run,.Labour reinforce the rule they cannot manage money..
    And if you think a Labour Government will be able to afford to reverse current spending cuts, I have news for you: they can’t raise enough new tax revenues .
    And if you think I am being unkind or wrong about Labour financial incompetence just look at Balls. He’s been wrong in all his forecasts of the impact of austerity.

    Finally, one of the big causes of low wages is Working Tax Credits. They encourage employers to pay less. So some government is going to have to bite the bullet — and raise the Minimum Wage as a result. Doing one without teh other is self defeating.. and the process will take several years.

  10. Norfolk29

    I wonder where you were in 1997. I was working in London and the schools and hospitals were falling apart. One school I actually had first hand knowledge of had more buckets being delivered every week than they had previously ever used, all to collect the drips from the leaks in the roof. Waiting lists for hospital appointments sometimes exceeded six months. It was national disgrace and the Tories, after 17 years in office, had not answer. And we were something like eight in the GDP stakes. Then Blair and Brown took over and by 2005 we were contesting with Germany, a country with 90 million population for fourth place in the GDP stakes. And the schools and hospitals were rebuilt. The seven years of John Major’s government were the worst seven years in the history of this country and when the history is written that will be common knowledge. Ken Clarke is alleged to have cooked the books(Red Book) knowing that Labour would win and had promised to maintain the spending plans of the outgoing government (plans he admitted he would have found difficulty maintaining himself.) Labour are better with the Economy than the Tories but are usually in office only after the Tories have mismanaged the economy so badly that a change of government is required.
    Working Tax Credits are a disgrace and hark back to the Poor Laws (1795 Speemhamland) where the labouring classes had so little power that the employers paid starvation wages. As the “Parish” was responsible for maintaining the poor they subsidised wages. needless to say, as now, the employers just kept reducing wage rates. Lucky they did not have Zero Hour Contracts in those days, as we do today. A shout of freedom will erupt next May when the Tories are driven back to the gutter from whence they came.

  11. madasafish

    And it all ended in tears despite the Chancellor promising for years to avoid one.. And how much money did he save for a rainy day?

    Err none…

  12. wildejamey

    ALL party establishments are elitist. It’s absurd to hold this against Miliband when the other side is twice as elitist and they are still ahead in the personal popularity stakes. But what people have to decide is if they want a smooth operator grinding them down for another 5 years to benefit the rich or someone following slightly better policies for ordinary people. Yes, some of us had doubts about Miliband’s PR credentials from the off. But the lack of party discipline 6 months before an election is appalling. It is playing into a determined campaign by the Tory media when actually the criticism of Cameron and the state of the Tory party is far worse.

  13. Norfolk29

    Are you one of those people who believe the financial crash of 2007/8 was confined to the UK and that it originated in the UK? Join Cameron and Osborne and the Daily Mail who do think that. Shame on them that they should mislead others. The fault was that the Treasury and the Bank of England could not believe that bankers would risk the bank for their own interests. Melvyn King was preaching for a year before about moral jeopardy yet when they crashed he and the Treasury rescued them. I would have let Royal Bank of Scotland go bankrupt as George Bush allowed Lehman Brothers to go bankrupt. It would have served them right and Fred Goodwin would not have got his £750,000 a year pension. It is not the function of Government to save money and all surpluses during 1997 and 2010 went to pay off the National Debt, and some debts run up during the Second World War. Blair and Brown did fix the roof when the sun was shining.

  14. madasafish

    ou appear to be ignorant of the fact the UK banking system was on the verge of collapse .. ATMs would have stopped working if RBS had gone under..

    Clearly you know more about global banking than Gordon brown and A Darling and should have been Chancellor.. as you would have waved your magic wand and saved the UK.

    Life is always full of simple solutions advocated by the ignorant.

  15. Guest

    No, they are refusing to raise revenues or to borrow.

    And yes, he’s been grossly wrong – things have been far worse, as you say people should get far less, as usual.

  16. Guest

    That explains you then.

  17. Leon Wolfeson

    Socialist? You want to drive away more people?

  18. Guest

    It’s easy to give easy answers when you don’t have the risk power, remember.

  19. Leon Wolfeson

    I don’t see it – the “natural” ally of the SNP would be the other party whose long-term goal is breaking the Union, the Tories…

  20. Norfolk29

    I have a degree in Economics from the LSE so your last comment is debatable. I have heard the arguments about the ATM’s about to stop working at the time. Typical Daily Mail panic reaction. The HSBC, Lloyds and Barclays would not have gone bankrupt in 2007/8 and their ATM’s would not have stopped working. RBS was rescued because it was Scottish and both Brown and Darling are Scottish. The tail wagging the dog. Fred Goodwin actually visited Alistair Darling at his home in Edinburgh to appeal for a rescue. There is no magic wand when the banking system was systematically robbing the revenues of the state and industry at an industrial rate and yet we had no law to define that anything they were doing was wrong or even unlawful. The American tried to get Fred Goodwin on the £12 Billion he had raised the year before and failed. However 3000+ Americans went to Jail. Not a single UK banker was even charged. To the best of my very limited knowledge nothing has changed since then to prevent it happening again. A few government bodies have changed their names to the FCA, etc but no one has been charged. The banks are Fined millions which they pay out of their incomes before tax (I wish I could do that with any parking fine I incur) but pay nothing themselves.

  21. madasafish

    Lots of claims made there.. Surprisingly for someone with a degree, no facts to back it up,.

    Your points about bankers are irrelevant to my point.

    The ATM system ? If RBS had gone bust, the InterBank Clearing system would have collapsed as no-one would have trusted each other. Which is why the Government poured in £biillions of short term liquidity..£45BN to RBS and £100s of Billions into the system..

    RBS was rescued because it was Scottish and both Brown and Darling are Scottish.

    Yeah right.. Well then why was Lloyds rescued? It’s not Scottish.
    Northern Rock was not Scottish Bradford and Bingley was not Scottish.

    Claptrap. A claim made by you totally devoid of any evidence.

    PS A degree in economics ? Ed Balls has one… Worthless..

  22. Norfolk29

    You appear to not even know the facts about what happened and it is only six years ago. My point about bankers is totally relevant as they drained the bloodstream until the patient collapsed from lack of blood (money). Like medieval doctors with their leeches.
    Ed Balls was a Leader Writer on the Financial Times when Brown recruited him as part of his team. I met some of his FT colleagues and they revered his knowledge of economics.
    The InterBank clearing system did collapse. I am amazed you do not know that this was the primary cause of most of the problems. No one trusted anyone else. Lloyds did not need to be rescued. Instead Brown persuaded them to take on Halifax/Bank of Scotland (who were bankrupt) without due diligence and as a result had to accept a government subsidy. The Lloyds Chairman had to resign when the facts came to light. Northern Rock did go Bankrupt. Bradford and Bingley did go bankrupt. Where were you that you can make such inaccurate statements. Are you a Daily Mail journalist or suchlike? This conversation is ended.

  23. Ian Duncan

    WTF is the point of Labour being in power if they’re just going to be a diluted version of the filth we already have? Because that’s where they’re headed. Tough on ‘welfare’, more austerity etc…

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