Ed Miliband, facing mounting questions over his leadership, shook up his general election team on Wednesday night, handing day-to-day responsibility for campaigning to Lucy Powell.
A former chief of staff to the Miliband office and director of the Britain in Europe campaign, Powell is known as a determined campaigner. As vice chair of the general election campaign, she will work alongside Douglas Alexander, the general election coordinator and chief strategist.
She left Miliband’s office as acting chief of staff after she won Manchester Withington in a byelection two years ago and was quickly made shadow children’s minister.
Miliband has also drafted Jon Trickett, a leftwing MP with close connections to the trade unions, into the leader’s office as an adviser.
Michael Dugher, previously responsible for election campaigns and communications, is promoted to the post of shadow transport secretary.
His promotion requires Mary Creagh, who had only been doing the transport job for a year, to become shadow international development secretary.
Although the reshuffle was largely caused by Murphy’s decision to seek the leadership of the ailing Scottish Labour party, Miliband has clearly used the moment to shake up his central team.
There had been tensions between Dugher and Alexander, and the move to transport will distance him from the day-to-day campaign decisions.
Dugher has long thought Labour’s transport policy has underplayed issues such as bus services, as well as the interests of motorists. Labour’s policy on rail franchises, probably the most contentious transport issue facing the party, was settled earlier this year .
It is also unlikely that his appointment will mean any change to the broad support for the HS2 project or to likely support for airport expansion in south-east England if that is recommended by the Davis Commission after the election.Powell’s promotion means 32 people attend shadow cabinet – 17 men and 15 women.
The shakeup of the election team reflects growing worries across the Labour party that Miliband is failing to connect with voters, a view reflected in a slow decline in the opinion polls. In some polls, Labour fell below 30% this week, perilously close to the 29% share of the vote achieved by Gordon Brown in the 2010 general election, its second-lowest share since universal suffrage.
There is also a fear that Miliband is too slow to make decisions or intervene in the daily cut-and-thrust of political debate.
Others want to see greater prominence given to the shadow cabinet team. There is criticism at the lack of visibility of David Axelrod, the former adviser to Barack Obama, who was hired last year at great expense. Miliband aides insist that Axelrod does not have to be in the UK regularly to give effective political advice.
On Wednesday, Miliband also suffered the indignity of a stinging attack by Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, one of the magazines that has been most supportive of his leadership. Cowley wrote that Miliband was unable to find the right tone to connect with the British people. “He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex man or woman. Politics for him must seem at times like an extended PPE seminar: elevated talk about political economy and the good society.”
Labour strategists were pointing to polling in the key battleground marginals published on Wednesday by Lord Ashcroft, showing that Conservatives are still unlikely to be the largest party after the general election. But there are signs that the size of the swing to Labour is falling with the election six months away and economic optimism rising.
Ashcroft points out that Conservatives cannot afford to lose more than 21 seats to Labour if they are to remain the largest party after the election and therefore probably in lead position to conduct coalition negotiations with other parties.
But Ashcroft’s polling in the marginals – the biggest constituency level polling exercise ever undertaken in the UK – shows the Tories behind in 38 seats. Ashcroft has not polled in every Tory-held marginal, so the scale of its losses is likely to be larger.
The latest polling covers 12 Tory-held seats with majorities of between 1,936 or 4.8% (Northampton North) and 3,744 or 7.1% (Loughborough).
Taking the seats together, Labour led the Conservatives by 36% to 33%, a swing of only 4.5% since the 2010 election. Labour would fail to win three of 12 seats – Loughborough, Kingswood, and Blackpool North & Cleveleys – where the swings to Labour were 2% or below. In two other seats, the Labour lead is only 1% and it has only a six-point lead in Croydon, one of the seats it is expected to win.
There is a growing fear among Labour pollsters that the some of the vote Labour harvested from disillusioned Liberal Democrats has now moved on to either to the Greens or to Ukip.
Miliband is determined to respond to the serious internal questioning of his leadership qualities by a strong restatement of his commitment to equality and fixing a broken economy.
He will use a speech to the CBI next week to spell out the dangers to business if David Cameron continues to flirt with a possible exit from the EU by continually raising the bar on what the Tories can achieve in terms of reducing the number of EU migrants coming into the country.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010