Ed Miliband ventured into the heart of middle England today to launch what is seen as Labour’s most significant electoral challenge since he became leader.
The party needs to over-turn 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 – which has voted the way of the winning party in every 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. While 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 today, just four days after Ms Mensch announced she was standing down, Mr Miliband travelled to Thrapston, a pretty market town dating back to the 13 century, to prove that no parts of the constituency is off limits.
“I want to know what the one thing politicians can do to help you,” Mr Miliband asked a group of teenage girls he met on the town’s high street.
“Get a Nandos 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 of 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 has successively had to let people go 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 so the market for flooring has shrunk. It’s hard to know what to do.”
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.
Sandra Naylor, who runs a florist on the high street, echoed a similar sentiment.
She said in all the years since the recession started this one so far had been the worst for her business and 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 world wide recession and 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 scrub-land behind the high street which was set up 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.
“People who say all politicians are the same. If there is one argument I want you to make above all, it is that Labour will make a difference to people’s lives.”
But the wider problem remains: how to convince to people that even if you can’t get a Nandos into town – you can make a difference to their lives.