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Thu, 18 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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Labour Criticised For Safety-First Approach To Seat Targeting Despite Poll Lead

Keir Starmer arrives on board his election battle bus at a campaign event in Halesowen (PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Concerns are being raised in Labour over whether its seat targeting strategy is much too safe considering the party’s staggering poll lead.

There is no sign of polls narrowing, so the Conservatives are changing tack: candidates in unwinnable seats – mostly in the North – have been told to focus their efforts further down south. The party has given up on Boris Johnson’s 2019 coalition of voters.

But Labour has stuck to its original allocation of battleground seats. This week the party even shut off access to Contact Creator – its digital tool for registering voter intention while canvassing – in non-battleground seats where they are deemed to be campaigning too much. The move has lowered morale and infuriated those who believe it shows Labour doesn’t trust candidates.

“There is an anal retentiveness in the party that is unbelievable. The centralised dictatorship that is now closing down constituencies is something I’ve never encountered before,” said one particularly candid Labour candidate.

“Part of this comes from their failure to understand that 2019 was wholly exceptional. It was about Brexit. It was about the perceived personality of Jeremy Corbyn… 2019 should never be used as a baseline for what we’re doing in 2024,” they added.

One example being discussed in Labour circles is how Romford activists are being directed to Dagenham and Rainham. While in 2019 the Tory majority in Romford was almost 18,000, and the Labour majority in Dagenham under 300, polling suggests the former is now a possible Labour win while the latter is safe territory.

“On these polls it's a bit ridiculous that any Labour holds are battlegrounds, particularly without any demographic reasons,” one prominent Labour activist told PoliticsHome.

Labour should “go in for the kill”

“There are no safe Tory seats anymore, so Labour can go after whatever they want,” said Chris Hopkins, political research director at Savanta. “If they're going to have an election in which to be ambitious, then this is the one, because everything's conspiring against the Conservative Party.”

To take the example cited above, the seat aggregator of predictions Hopkins uses shows every pollster has Dagenham and Rainham as Labour, whereas four have Romford for the Conservatives and five have it for Labour. If Labour could burn their Dagenham clipboards now and still win it, why not reallocate resources?

In 2019 Labour had its second biggest majority in the country in Bethnal Green and Bow, represented by Rushanara Ali. Bethnal Green and Stepney, largely the same seat, was designated a battleground at the start of the campaign – due to concerns about Labour’s Gaza problem – and locals are still being encouraged to volunteer in the “crucial” area rather than go elsewhere. There remains huge anxiety in Labour over Muslim voters rejecting the party.

“There was a perception that Labour’s issues with the Green Party and independents, because of Gaza or other things, were equal to the Conservatives’ problems with Reform UK. And they’re just not. They’re not even remotely in the same ballpark, frankly, because Labour have made up so much ground by taking Conservative voters,” Hopkins said.

On the broader seat targeting strategy, he continued: “I totally understand the trepidation, because Labour's been out of power for a long time. It's had some false dawns, 2017 being a key one. But I genuinely believe that Labour could have won that election in 2017 had it had a better seat strategy. It was too defensive.”

The Savanta director concluded: “I would be very tempted if I were a Labour strategist to go in for the kill at this point on the Conservative Party.”

Are “grumbling” candidates wrong?

Of course, not everyone agrees with the criticism.

“My seat is still getting full support and I think it should do,” a red wall Labour candidate said. “The party has private polling and focus groups, and they track our canvassing returns… I trust them.”

Another candidate in the red wall added: “I’m a big believer in our central data operation. Grumbling PPCs tend to be wrong.”

Knock, knock, who’s there?

Still, down in London, sources say constituencies like Harrow East are being flooded with Labour activists to the point that voters are put off due to over-canvassing.

Although it was suspected at the start of the campaign that Tory Bob Blackman’s seat could buck the trend and stay blue because of the “Modi effect” among Gujarati voters, Labour figures are now confident about their chances of gaining it.

More generally on the doorstep, PoliticsHome hears that it is Rishi Sunak saying he didn’t have Sky TV growing up – apparently perceived by voters as a further sign he is out-of-touch – that is regularly being mentioned.

“Let’s start a crowdfund to get Rishi Sunak Sky TV!” one random passer-by recently shouted into a Labour candidate’s campaign office.

The Labour Party declined to comment.

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