Ed Miliband has been warned that Labour is not doing well enough in the south of England to be confident of winning an overall majority at the 2015 general election.
Although Labour made some gains in the South in last Thursday’s council elections, these were eclipsed by the dramatic advance by Ukip, undermining Mr Miliband’s rebranding of his party as “One Nation Labour.”
Nigel Farage’s party won more seats than Labour in areas such as Kent and Essex, which include several key marginal seats Labour needs to win to regain power in 2015.
Patrick Diamond, a senior adviser to both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were Prime Ministers, warned that Labour’s performance last week was “patchy” and “underwhelming”.
Writing in The Independent today, he says: “The truth is that Labour is still not doing well enough to be confident of victory. It is an inescapable fact that if the party is to win the next election, it has to do much better in southern England.”
Labour’s spell in the political wilderness between 1979 and 1997 was blamed partly on what was dubbed the party’s “southern discomfort”, which was relieved when Mr Blair broadened Labour’s appeal beyond its traditional supporters. Mr Diamond, who has studied Labour’s problem in the South, says Mr Miliband is right to argue that the public have moved on from New Labour.
But, after last week’s breakthrough by a right-wing populist party, he warns that the Labour leader would be wrong to think that people have shifted to the left.
“People no longer see policy issues in conventional ‘left’/’right’ terms,” says Mr Diamond. “Indeed, they are increasingly uncomfortable with the false choices implied by what passes for political debate at Westminster.”
Mr Diamond says: “The lesson of history is that Labour triumphs when, as in 1945, 1964 and 1997, it is seen as a party capable of uniting a broad spectrum of constituencies and classes.
“This means reaching out beyond narrow, partisan and tribal lines, demonstrating that Labour is a national party capable of governing in the national interest.”
He adds: “Winning voters’ trust to manage the economy competently, spend responsibly and tax fairly need not be achieved at the expense of improving conditions for those most in need, tackling inequalities of income and wealth. In challenging times, Labour must be a party capable of offering a hand up to those who want to get on, as well as a helping hand to those in trouble.”
Labour insists it is fighting back in its target constituencies in the South -- winning seven out of eight council seats in Hastings and three out of four in Harlow. It gained 12 seats in Hertfordshire, where Ukip gained none.
Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, told The Independent yesterday that Mr Miliband is making progress in the South, admitting this is necessary both politically and electorally. “If you purport to lead the country, you have to lead the whole of the country, not just pile up votes in sections of it to get yourself into Number 10,” she said. “The progress is very encouraging, but obviously we have further to go. We are building from a low base, or no base, in some areas.”
After Ukip’s success, Mr Miliband may come under pressure to drop his opposition to an EU referendum. But Ms Harman said: “We need to look at their voters and their issues of concern, and to inspire their confidence – not just look at Ukip’s policies and adjust ours.”
Research by Ipsos Mori suggests that Ukip is most popular among men, working-class people and older voters. Its support is strongest in the South, South-east and Midlands.