Feature: The gloves come off

Labour are ready for a bare-fisted animal fight. The Conservatives are watching them carefully – and sharpening their knives.

By Alex Stevenson

With six months to go, politics.co.uk confidently predicted the general election will take place on May 6th this year. Labour campaigners we spoke to then were ready for the fight, but not necessarily expecting to win. There are different kinds of positive, after all. There’s the ‘things can only get better’ kind of 1997. And then there’s ‘if anyone can do it, [insert beleaguered Labour MP here] can’.

Since then Labour’s recovery has been undeniable. It has shown considerable progress in the polls, prompting brief speculation before the new year of a March 25th election. That now seems unlikely, so we’re back to the May 6th date. Excitement over? Not for New Labour. This isn’t 2007 all over again.

Instead the governing party is showing a fighting spirit which was utterly lacking two months ago.

Labour’s revival

It’s the same across the country. Labour activists are upbeat because the mood on the doorsteps is changing. Private reports are indicating the anti-government reflex of many inevitably associated with over a decade in power is lessening. People are considering the alternative option, opening up the party’s core vote. There has been much wringing of hands about abandoning their heartlands at recent Labour party conferences. Now it seems the momentum is shifting.

Take Yorkshire and the Humber, for example, whose coal- and steel-making heritage lays bare the impact politics can have on a region. Despite their industrial past, towns like Halifax and Keithley have a traditional conservative vote hardwired into their collective consciousness. Mixed communities complicate politics up here. There is much to be fought for, but Labour aren’t giving up.

Instead the local party is boasting of 5,000 new jobs created in the region by April under the Future Jobs Fund and the selling of 16,000 cars under the car scrappage scheme.

“People in Yorkshire and the Humber will contrast this with the way the Tories left our region to sink or swim during the recessions of 1980s and ’90s,” a Yorkshire and the Humber Labour party spokesperson told politics.co.uk. As with the prime minister’s new year message, the emphasis appears to be on the positive; “of laying the foundations for growth rather than condemning Yorkshire to a decade of austerity”.

Even in the embattled south-east of England, where Labour holds 19 seats which appear especially imperilled by the Tory advance, the attitude is one of resistance rather than retreat. Candidates are out on the doorstep every day, working “extremely hard”, whether they’re the sitting MPs or not.

“They are listening to people across the region and will never take people for granted in this election as the Tories are doing,” a spokesperson said.

And the same goes for the east of England: “In all of our seats, the local Labour campaign teams are continuing to work extremely hard, because we know that locally and across the country we are offering the right answer.”

This seems a far cry from the misery of November.

Conservatives cling on

One of the most peculiar seats on Britain’s electoral map is Wyre Forest, which was successfully defended by independent MP Richard Taylor in 2005.

This West Midlands battleground is attracting the attention of both main parties, which is why Labour were so buoyed up by the result of the Areley Kings ward on Wyre Forest district council. Their gain saw the Tories pushed into third place. James Shaw’s 123-seat majority might not make this a truly momentous victory, but it seems to reflect the sliding momentum towards Labour in recent weeks.

The Tory response is telling.

“It’s all about teamwork,” PPC Mark Garnier said on Monday. Michael Gove, Caroline Spelman and Francis Maude were among the big-hitters who visited the constituency in a major campaigning day for the Tories. Four thousand leaflets were delivered as efforts focused on Dr Taylor’s seat. The systematic approach masterminded by party chairman Eric Pickles is the Tory answer to talk of shifting momentum.

It’s true across the country. In places like Liverpool, where Conservatives don’t stand a chance of campaigning effectively by themselves, the city seats initiative sees candidates working together and pooling their resources. There are nine candidates in Birmingham city centre, which are organising themselves on the same basis. The same goes for Manchester.

“The Conservative party across the whole of the UK has shown its dedication to working hard as a team to bring around the change the country desperately needs,” a party spokesperson said.

Mr Garnier argues the case more passionately. The whole point of political parties, he suggests, is that people help each other – whether that involves shoving leaflets through doors or by uniting to improve the way they represent their constituents.

“The world is a complicated place and no individual can ever hope to be an expert on everything that affects his or her constituents. That is why individuals, of a similar mind, have been getting together to form political parties for hundreds of years – so they can help each other help their constituents.”

It’s a strong message in a seat which has spurned mainstream parties for two consecutive elections. But it’s also one which the Tories seem to be applying more widely. It’s their response to Labour’s resurgent morale.

A fundamental struggle

Across Britain, local party activists are flexing their campaigning muscles for what will arguably be the most hotly contested elections since 1992. The Tories are hungry for power after 13 years in the wilderness. For many months Labour’s historic three terms seemed to be dragging them down.

But now the governing party is showing more fight in keeping the Tories out than many commentators could ever have predicted.

This unexpected revival has been prompted by a high stakes game: Britain’s perilously placed public finances.

Britain’s unprecedented borrowing has returned politics to an earlier, simpler age. Gordon Brown began the trend in his speech to the Brighton Labour conference last autumn. He sent British politics spiralling backwards to elemental basics. This is once again a true clash of left and right.

The spectre of Tory cuts and a repeat of the 1980s-style recession haunts Labour. Now the Tories are threatening to return to the bad old days. Labour has something to fight for. And it shows.