Back in May 2008, David Cameron swept into the Cheshire constituency of Crewe and Nantwich and declared the “end of New Labour”.
His party had won a byelection – the first such gain in a quarter of a century – following the sudden death of the Labour incumbent, Gwyneth Dunwoody, who had held the seat since 1983. Gordon Brown’s government was in the middle of its death spiral and Labour lost decisively.
When the 2010 general election came round, Labour was, if anything, further in the mire. A barrister, Ed Timpson, son of the founder of the Timpson chain of shoe repair and key-cutting shops, was returned as the Tory MP. It wasn’t a pleasant campaign, with Labour seeking to gain political advantage from Timpson’s privileged upbringing in an example of some of the worst excesses of the politicking prevalent during the Brown years. In the event, only Labour’s reputation was tarnished.
Just as the Labour party nationally has since gone through a painful time of rebuilding, so it has here. “It has been a long haul,” said Dr Adrian Heald, the impressive Labour candidate, talking from his constituency office in Crewe. “But Labour is back,” he said optimistically.
Crewe and Nantwich is one of 85 Labour-Conservative marginals in which the two main parties are the only genuine options – seats that are increasingly important to Labour as things appear to go from bad to worse in Scotland. The constituencies tend to contain a strikingly diverse mix of electors – large market and university towns; ethnically diverse suburbs of the big metropolitan areas; or, as in Crewe and Nantwich, an electorate of two halves.
Crewe – population 83,000 and once a major railway engineering centre but now down-at-heel – is pretty solidly Labour. The market town of Nantwich, population 17,424, is staunchly Tory, as are many of the villages that dot the constituency.
Heald’s task is to get the Labour vote out, steal the Lib Dems’ 2010 holding of 15% and persuade the soft Labour vote that moved to the Conservatives last time as a consequence of Brown, the dirty campaign and fears over the economy, to come home.
It is the Crewe side of the constituency where Heald is spending much of his time. Meanwhile, he has to hope that the Ukip magpies steal from Timpson rather than him.
While the lesson of this election is that local issues are core to the electorate’s priorities, giving every seat its own peculiarities, this is the general strategy of Labour candidates in every one of those Labour-Tory marginals. Few candidates are seeking to turn to their cause those who have consistently voted Tory. This is a campaign of attrition.
A poll from the Tory Lord Ashcroft released last week suggests that Heald, a consultant physician at the local Leighton hospital, is on track. He has edged Labour ahead by three points.
Yet listen to the mood music on the doorsteps, bubbling along in the background to the myriad of local complaints, and there are three clear hurdles to Miliband’s party scraping to victory: perceptions about the Labour leader as lacking a prime ministerial touch; concern about his party’s ability to successfully handle the economy; and apathy. And there are only three weeks to go.
The general consensus is that Miliband did well during Thursday night’s five-way BBC debate. There was talk of an impending disaster, in which the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, the Green party leader Natalie Bennett and Ukip’s Nigel Farage would be able to gang up and pick apart the Labour leader’s claim to be the genuine alternative to the Conservatives and austerity.
But Labour, well aware of the potential drag factor that Miliband’s personal polling could have on his party, has always recognised these debates as an opportunity to recalibrate the electorate’s perception of its man. The Labour team believes the hurdle of his poor personal polling is surmountable.
It has not been easy getting Miliband up to scratch for these debates (the party has been working on it for nine months), but he drives himself hard. During rehearsals on Monday, the hottest day of the year, the air-conditioning in Labour’s party HQ on Brewers Green broke down. Miliband worked on, refusing to take off his jacket because he wanted conditions to be as realistic as possible, although the noisy fans brought in made that hope rather academic.
On the day of the debate, Miliband, Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s former director of communications), general election chief Douglas Alexander, who also acts as resident Scottish expert, and director of strategy Greg Beales were due to work through several scenarios from noon to 6pm.
As ever, a camera team was at Labour HQ, focusing on Miliband, whose goal was to look like a prime minister-in-waiting. After four hours of this, the Labour leader was persuaded to take a rest. Later he performed admirably, achieving the goal of metaphorically putting an absent Cameron in the room through constant mentions.
Results from an Opinium/Observer poll show that, of the party leaders, only he and Sturgeon have enjoyed improved ratings as a consequence of the campaign, with a quarter of voters saying they feel more positive about him now than they did. And this is not simply because of his performances at the three television events.
For a few weeks, when it did not look as if the debates would go ahead, Beales lamented to Campbell that all their work on getting Miliband ready for the head-to-heads with Cameron had been wasted. Campbell disagreed. The process has undoubtedly sharpened Miliband and given him and those working for him added confidence. And it is cutting through to the electorate, they believe.
On Friday the former Labour cabinet minister Alan Johnson, regarded by many even at the highest levels of the party as the leader Labour should have had, was on the campaign trail, knocking on doors and supporting the incumbent Gareth Thomas, in the Labour-Tory marginal of Harrow West, in north-west London.
Johnson has visited 30 seats this year, and a series of marginals in the past few weeks, with more to come. He agrees that there has been an improvement in public perception of Miliband and is generally optimistic about Labour’s chances.
“A lot of it is about personalities and people don’t like Cameron. I can’t say that they love Ed either, but it is getting better, the Ed thing.”
But the second evident hurdle to a Labour victory in these seats – the economy – clearly does worry Johnson. The Conservatives have successfully depicted Labour’s spending and debt addiction as a major reason for the economic crash, he admits, and that is hurting. His frustration is that Labour “should have done more” by now. “It [the economy] comes up in a sense [on the doorsteps] because they are worried about jobs,” he said. “It is said there is economic growth but they don’t feel it. But this is where we should have done more on this big lie of Labour’s economic failure. There is no soundbite that we have got to equal the claim that we maxed out on your credit card …
“I think we need to do more on that. I was pleased Ed put the economy on the front of the manifesto. It gives us a chance to say that we can’t ignore the financial deficit and also explain how the financial deficit came to be there.”
But is it too late to persuade people that a global economic crash was at fault for people’s travails and not Labour spending on health and education?
“That’s my frustration,” Johnson said. “As Lynton Crosby said, you don’t fatten the pig on market day.”
London, nevertheless, offers the chance of some big gains for Labour. Nick de Bois, the Tory MP for Enfield North, is likely to lose his seat despite being widely regarded as having done a good job for his constituents. “I am under no illusion: everyone from the bookies to the opinion polls tells me I am the underdog,” said De Bois, who has a majority of 1,700. He recognises that his party, while flattered with support in 2010 in the dog days of the Gordon Brown administration, still struggles in the capital due to “old outdated perceptions”. “We have to work so hard over a generation to demonstrate what we do stand for and our real values,” he said.
There are nine Labour-Tory marginals in Labour’s sights and Gareth Thomas, knocking on the other side of the street to Johnson, is confident that at least five or six of those will be picked up. Thomas’s own seat, he says, is one of four Labour constituencies in London that are vulnerable.
But the popular politician, mooted as a possible Labour candidate for mayor of London in 2016, says he is reasonably confident that he will pull through. Yet this is not 1997; and there is Labour’s third hurdle: apathy. After Thomas knocks on one door in a lower-middle-class road in Harrow, a woman in her early 50s opens it. She looks at Thomas blankly, reaches down to the doormat and picks up a leaflet. She rips it once. Pauses. Looks at Thomas. Puts the two halves together and she rips it again.
“Are you thinking of voting?” Thomas asks tentatively. She nods. “Can I offer you one of my leaflets?” A pause. She slowly shakes her head. “It’ll only be thrown away.” The door shuts. The body language “wasn’t great”, Thomas says. And that was a Labour voter.
Sixty miles north, in Bedford, on Friday, no faster is a leaflet posted through somebody’s letterbox by a canvasser than it shoots back on to the street. The homeowner proceeds to glare through the glass patio door with menace. And every candidate in this election will have a story like that. Yet Labour desperately needs to get the vote out. Sitting Tory MPs who fear they are about to be booted out privately admit that their only hope is that those who turned to the Tories in 2010, but now resent David Cameron’s failure to deliver for them, will sit at home on 7 May rather than back their opponent.
Back in Crewe and Nantwich, standing around Labour’s small cluttered office, Damian Bailey, 22, a local council candidate, helping Heald in his canvassing, admits apathy here is also an issue.
“We get a lot of that, don’t we, Adrian?” Bailey says to Heald. He nods. “Absolutely.” On the white board covering one wall of Heald’s office is written: “22 days to go. We will win”. If seats such as Crewe & Nantwich do fall to Labour, it flags a national swing of 6% – enough to make it the largest party in the next parliament. Crewe needs to symbolise catastrophe for Cameron and not conquest.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010