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 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.

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