Labour must boost appeal within M25, warns shadow minister

A poll found 53 per cent of these voters believe party used to care about them, but only 30 per cent think it still does

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Indy Politics

Labour needs to sharpen its appeal in the crucial commuter land around London which could decide the next general election, Ed Miliband has been warned by one of his own frontbenchers.

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Gareth Thomas called on Labour to target the "suburban Sarahs and Simons" and "commuting Christophers and Chloes" in the 107 constituencies in outer London and near the M25 motorway, which include a high concentration of key marginals. In a stark message to Labour, he says it will not regain power on the back of opposition to spending cuts or the Coalition's mistakes.

The shadow Universities minister, who is MP for Harrow West, has written a pamphlet suggesting that Labour urgently needs to mount a political and organisational fightback in London's commuter land. The party made sweeping gains here in 1997 but fell backwards in 2001 and 2005.

YouGov, which carried out polling and focus groups for the report, found that 53 per cent of voters in this "outer metropolitan area" think Labour "used to care about the concerns of people like me", but only 30 per cent believe the party still cares about them. For the Conservatives, the figures are 33 and 30 per cent respectively, a much smaller drop. "Whilst there are many marginal seats around the country, it is in London's commuter belt that Labour needs to win more marginal seats if it is to return to power and where the battle for the hearts and minds of electors will be particularly tough," Mr Thomas said.

Peter Kellner, YouGov's president, said: "Many people fear what would happen under a Labour government." The main fears are that taxes, immigration and red tape would all increase. Less than one in three people believe that Labour would improve living standards, public services, create more jobs and ensure more criminals were caught.

The commuter-belt voters are more concerned than people living elsewhere about immigration and public transport and more likely to think trade unions wield too much power. They are less likely to worry about pensions, social security and poverty.

The pamphlet, The Politics of Anxiety, also identifies big opportunities for Labour. Almost two in three people are worried they will find it hard to make ends meet in a year or two; their main fears about a Tory victory next time are lower living standards, higher taxes, fewer jobs and worse public services.

Mr Thomas insisted that Labour was making progress in the commuter world after Ed Miliband's pitch to the "squeezed middle", but admitted the party had mixed results there in the local elections in May.

He conceded: "The polling demonstrates that we have a considerable amount of work to do to convince commuter-belt voters, as well as the country at large, that the next Labour government will lead to higher living standards, more jobs and better public services. Whilst expectations that a majority Conservative government would lead to fewer jobs and worse public services provide fertile territory for our growing critique of the Tory-led Government's economic, schools and NHS policy, it is clear this will not be enough.

"Less than 18 months after a major election defeat this should dispel any lingering notions in the wider party that opposing Tory cuts and waiting for yet more Coalition mistakes will be enough to get us again through Whitehall's closed doors." Mr Thomas added: "For Labour, the challenge is to think through how government could help create the conditions that put more money into people's pockets, make it easier for people to get on the property ladder and support and encourage sustainable job creation."

He said a serious debate about the unions was needed because the wider public is "sceptical" about them. The focus groups revealed that the appeal of the co-operative movement has recovered among possible Labour voters.

So what do a real Simon and Sarah think?

In last year's general election, Labour lost almost half the seats it was defending in London's commuter belt – the 45 seats in outer London, together with the 62 seats near the M25 (officially the "outer metropolitan area"). Under Tony Blair, Labour made spectacular gains here in 1997. Under Gordon Brown in 2010, Labour suffered proportionately greater losses here than in the rest of Britain. Ed Miliband needs to regain these seats if Labour is to regain power.

Simon Morris, 35, lives in Harrow, Middlesex, and works for an IT firm

"Ed Miliband does not have the aura of a leader. He has yet to convince me he is the right man to lead the country. I am not a Conservative supporter, but the current dearth of options only really leads me to want to abstain from voting. The advice Miliband is being given is absolutely right, but I cannot see any way he could win me round. I want someone to take a stand on certain issues, particularly the NHS. What I see is someone waiting for the Tories to make mistakes he can capitalise on, not someone setting out a strong position we can vote for."

Sarah O'Neill, 42, lives in north-west London, and is self-employed

"There is something about Ed Miliband's presentation which I cannot see winning enough votes to make him prime minister. When I compare him to David Cameron, he is not as impressive. If I read his proposals for the country, I would perhaps be quite impressed but his appearance is not convincing. He has done better recently, because he has been out and about at a troubled time for the country. But I am not sure that he has enough to get him over the electoral line. I still wonder how different things would be if his brother were leader."