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

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