Stephen Bush visits three of the Frontline 40 seats that Labour must win to secure a majority in 2015
Welcome to Norwich North: priority one on Labour’s path to a parliamentary majority, the first of the ‘Frontline 40’ seats identified by Progress that will constitute Labour’s majority in 2015, and one of only a handful of seats in the country to have voted for David Cameron’s Conservatives twice.
Arthur, a retiree, counts out his electoral history on his fingers: three for Tony Blair, and two for David Cameron. Chloe Smith, elected here on a mammoth swing in a 2009 by-election, hunkered down and worked hard. Labour recovered some ground the year after, but it was not enough. While outside of Norwich the Cabinet Office minister might be largely known for a disastrous turn on Newsnight while she was still at the Treasury, here she has a well-cultivated local following.
Shortly after being selected, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Norwich North Jessica Asato explained to Total Politics magazine that one of her biggest tasks would be chipping away at Smith’s local profile, and to show that, ‘she is not some nice MP but actually a fully paid-up member of this government.’ A year on, the government is more unpopular than ever, but how is Smith doing?
Christine, a receptionist, counts out the candidates she has supported since moving to Norwich: one vote for Ian Gibson, the former Labour MP, and two for Chloe Smith. ‘I don’t think I’ll be making it three.’ Her explanation could be straight out of the pages of Total Politics. ‘She’s very hard-working,’ she says, ‘But who is she working hard for? George Osborne, that’s who!’
‘I see the Labour about all the time,’ Arthur tells me later that day. ‘Got a leaflet through my door.’ It is the advantage of having a candidate in place: individuals get the benefit of the doubt, while people assume the worst when they hear about parties alone.
Over in Reading West – another seat that Labour must win to get a parliamentary majority – I talk to a middle-aged man through a crack in the door. He stares grimly at me when I tell him I am here with the Labour candidate. ‘Who’s he, then? Another London boy flown in, I’ll bet.’ I explain that the candidate is a woman, Victoria Groulef, who works in business and lives in Reading, and the crack widens an inch or so.
But while there is a good feeling on the ground, there is something in the air that people do not like about Labour. I spoke to Christine outside the shops in Anglia Square, and she explains how she has had to rely on the local Poundstretcher.
‘I don’t think Mr Cameron’s ever been to a Poundstretcher, do you?’ she asks. ‘But for the rest of us, it’s a bit of a Poundstretcher economy, isn’t it?’ Then the conversation takes a turn for the worse. ‘You scrimp and save to have some treats for the kids, and to make sure they’re looked after when you’re at work, and you look round here’ – Christine lifts her hand to point at a woman with a large group of children – ‘and you think, “it’s all right for them, isn’t it?” And that’s the problem I’ve got with Mr Ed Miliband.’
Later the same day I bump into the woman Christine indicated and ask her what she thinks about the state of the parties. Her accuser is wrong: she works a zero-hours contract in one of the local shops, and her concerns and Christine’s are incredibly similar: the cost of heating, the kids outgrowing their clothes, childcare.
But it is a complaint that grows familiar to me as I talk to residents in three of the seats in the ‘Frontline 40’: Norwich North, Reading West and Ilford North. On the day that Miliband comes unstuck on the World at One, I talk to Roy, a store manager in a busy shopping centre in the Ilford North constituency. It is not the idea of borrowing that is problematic, it is who we would spend it on that he minds.
‘You see it a lot, don’t you? Quiet day when everyone’s working, and a large family – usually a foreign family, no offence! – comes in and throws a lot of money about. Now where’s that coming from?’
I am sure that if I hung around the centre for long enough, I would discover that many of those large families that Roy so dislikes are working too, just like the woman that Christine singled out was. But this idea that some people are having an easier time, while ‘ordinary people’ – everyone thinks that they are an ordinary person, even stamp collectors – are having to work harder and harder.
‘It’s not just “squeezed”,’ Groulef says about the people in her patch, but she could be talking about any of the people I have met, ‘it’s a “stretched” middle, having to make everything go a bit further each month, everyone having to do much more with less.’
A stretched, and increasingly fractious, middle. Everyone I talk to has had to give something up. In Reading, Groulef explains, sole traders – who are numerous in the constituency – struggle with fuel costs and with banks that will not lend. In Norwich, Arthur has switched to the own-brand butter. ‘At first, it wasn’t so bad, making savings, making do.’ He pauses. ‘But it wears thin pretty quick.’
The reason why the Tories want to talk about benefits is that it very quickly becomes an inescapable trap for Labour; we cannot win if people in Ilford, Reading and Norwich think that we will get into government and ‘waste’ their money on welfare, but if we are not in government, we cannot prove that we will not do so.
Austerity becomes, not a Conservative weakness, but a source of strength; they are gradually paring back the things that working people get from the state, making taxes a source of resentment and envy. In Ilford, the local hospital is losing its accident and emergency department, and, as changes to working benefits hit, government is becoming something that most of the people I talk to there do for other people.
Here, too, there are the same worries about the cost of living. ‘People move here for good schools and open spaces,’ Wes Streeting, deputy leader of the Labour group on Redbridge council, explains, but the Central Line, and its connection to the city centre, is also vital. When we discussed the rising cost of a Travelcard, Roy had winced. ‘I’m doing well, and I feel it every month. I don’t know how our staff are coping, I honestly don’t.’
Those familiar pressures – childcare, transport, heating – give Labour something to talk about, and there is no shortage of activists working to take that argument to the streets. In Norwich, more people I spoke to have heard of Asato than Ed Balls, while, in the week I visit, Groulef and the members in Reading Labour have knocked on over 1,000 doors.
Talking about Labour in Redbridge, Streeting sums up the causes for optimism and anxiety for the party across all three seats. ‘We certainly have more people power and better organisation than the Tories, but they outspend us on glossy literature.’ Roy tells me about the Labour activists who canvassed him only the day before; but he also shows me the same, high-quality direct mail from Conservative Campaign Headquarters that Arthur showed me in Norwich North. Labour’s blank sheet is being filled in – by the Tories.
Streeting is, however, optimistic. Lee Scott, Ilford North’s Conservative MP, was elected in 2005 and has been building his local profile for over a decade, but ‘he’s vulnerable and beatable.’ The same could be said of Smith in Norwich North and Alok Sharma in Reading West. All three parties need more detail from above, but they also need more volunteers and donations from ordinary members; to fund leaflets, organisers and newsletters. ‘Every penny counts,’ says Streeting. That is something that the leadership has to prove to the country; and the grassroots to each other.
Stephen Bush is a contributing editor to Progress. Meet all of the Frontline 40 candidates at www.labourmajority.org.uk/where/frontline-40
Chloe Smith, Conservatives, election 2015, Frontline 40, Ilford, Jessica Asato, Labour, Norwich, Reading, Victoria Groulef, Wes Streeting