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Miliband heads to Corby to fire up voters

With a by-election looming, the Labour leader is desperate to get his man into the seat vacated by Louise Mensch. By Oliver Wright

Ed Miliband ventured into the heart of middle England yesterday to launch what is seen as Labour's most significant electoral challenge since he became leader.

The party needs to overturn a Conservative majority of just under 2,000 to win the Corby by-election caused by the sudden resignation of the colourful local MP Louise Mensch earlier this week.

Labour strategists are acutely aware that failure to take the seat – whose constituents have voted for the winning party in every general election since 1979 – will re-open questions about whether its notional lead in polls can translate into real votes.

In some ways the name of the constituency is misleading. Although it is centred on the former steel town of Corby, much of the seat, formerly represented by Ms Mensch, is solidly conservative, with a small "c".

So yesterday, just four days after Ms Mensch announced she was standing down, Mr Miliband travelled to Thrapston, a pretty market town dating back to the 13th century, to prove that no parts of the constituency are off limits.

"I want to know what the one thing is that politicians can do to help you," Mr Miliband said to a group of teenage girls he met on the town's high street.

"Get a Nando's in Thrapston," replied Verity Smith. She wasn't really joking.

But joking or not her comment reflected a wider and more significant difficulty confronting Mr Miliband and the Tories as they seek to win a by-election (expected in November) which will set the political mood music in Westminster.

Many voters are interested in political issues – but not the politicians and parties who strive to solve them.A number of people who voted Tory last time round seemed content to do so again with no great enthusiasm and those who voted Labour wanted them to retake the seat.

But the majority had little belief that either party could help them. Middle England is hurting – but they don't think anyone has the power to heal the pain.

Nick Watts, 50, runs a company making timber flooring for yachts. In 2008 he employed 108 people but he has repeatedly had to lay people off as the market dried up.

He now employs 72 people but says he doesn't have work enough for them.

"Moral is pretty low – not good," he says. "We're just a small cog in a big wheel. The market for yachts has shrunk and so the market for flooring has shrunk. It's hard to know what to do."

Mr Watts, who joined the business his father founded in 1979, does not blame the previous Labour government for the economic downturn – but neither does he blame the Conservatives for the lack of growth.

The problem, he says, is in Europe – and frankly it will make little difference which party he plumps for. "To be honest I've given up voting," he says.

Ian Robinson said he wasn't going to vote unless Ukip stood in the seat as he didn't believe either Labour or the Conservatives would shake up the political consensus.

Sandra Naylor, who runs a florist on the high street, echoed a similar sentiment. She said that in the years since the recession started this one had been the worst for her business, adding that she didn't believe any politician had the answers.

"It does not matter who you have in power. We had Labour in power for 13 years and they did a lot of things wrong, and we've had the Tories in power for two years and they haven't really put things right. This is a worldwide recession and it doesn't seem to make a whole lot of difference who is in."

Mr Miliband tried to address these concerns when he spoke to a group of Labour activists in a patch of scrubland behind the high street which was used for an "impromptu" stump speech.

"Our opponents in this by-election are not just the Tories and Lib Dems but those who think that politics cannot make a difference," he said.

"The last time there were council elections here in Corby, less than half those eligible to vote did so. We all hear it on the doorsteps. People who say all politicians are the same. Who say that voting won't make any difference. If there is one argument I want you to make above all, it is that Labour will make a difference to people's lives." Perhaps.

Although Labour is desperately trying to play down expectations they are likely to take the seat – not least because in 2010 the Liberal Democrats got nearly 15 per cent of the vote and expect considerable defections.

Labour also has the advantage that its candidate, Andy Sawford, 36, has been in place for more than a year, while the Tories have no obvious successor to Ms Mensch.

Mr Sawford's father was MP for nearby Kettering and the party is highlighting youth unemployment and the failure of the Government to stimulate the economy more widely.

But the wider problem remains: how to convince people that even if you can't get a Nando's into town, you can make a difference to their lives.