Labour party big hitters were out and about in Eastleigh last weekend as four of the five rivals for the party leadership visited the town accompanied by Southampton Labour MP’s John Denham and Alan Whitehead
Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and both the Miliband brothers Ed and Dave put aside their rivalries to spread the message that the Lib/Con proposals on VAT would hit Eastleigh shoppers hard.
Ed Balls the former education minister, told Eastleigh News that the Towns voters had been ‘betrayed ‘ by Chris Huhne who had urged voters to keep out the Tory’s and warned of conservative tax rises only to take a seat in their cabinet and speak at the despatch box in favour of a rise in vat.
Although Chris Huhne is now in favour of a rise in VAT to 20% – most of his constituents did not appear to share his enthusiasm and readily signed a petition against the proposed VAT rises
‘It’s a Tax on everything’ one told me,
‘Everything will go up and the poorest will suffer’
While they were united in their opposition to tax rises the leadership contenders were also trying to garner support for their own campaigns.
Eastleigh news asked the prospective candidates the same question.
What had gone wrong in election? Eastleigh’s Labour vote had halved with up to 5,000 former Labour voters defecting to the Lib Dems. If they became Labour leader, how would they shape party so they could reconnect with disaffected Labour supporters?
Ed Balls was quite clear that they would ‘do it on the doorstep’; he seemed to suggest that style had defeated substance – that there was nothing wrong with the Labour Party performance other than a failure to get voters ‘on message’.
He immediately showed he meant to lead by example as he enthusiastically began to canvass market goers, trying to persuade them to sign up to the petition opposed to the proposed VAT hike.
All of a sudden it was May again as party workers led by the ebullient Mr Balls fanned out and started accosting shoppers who must have hoped they had put all this campaigning behind them for another five years.
One of the first people Mr Balls spoke to, who described himself as a labour supporter, pointedly asked him:
’Where were you before the election?’
Indeed, why were there six labour MP including five former cabinet ministers and posse of party workers touring Eastleigh when before the election even the Labour candidate had gone missing and was unavailable for a Sky News interview just days before polling?
Unlike Mr Balls both Andy Burnham and David Miliband were clear why Labour had failed.
Former Health Secretary Burnham acknowledged that Labour had lost the support of their core vote and cited the example of Tax Credits – where many Working families found themselves marginally ineligible for tax breaks – as having lead to a perception of unfairness.
David Miliband was far more explicit in his criticism of Labour‘s election campaign.
In reply to my question “how are you going to re-connect with the voters of Eastleigh” he said:
“We have to address their real needs and hopes. The last election campaign was too much about fear and not enough about hope. We have got to talk about living standards, about crime, about immigration, about housing.
We have got to make sure we stand up for families who want to make a better life for themselves.”
“These are the issues you lost the election on? ” I asked
“Evidently we did .”
“We have to reclaim lost ground on areas like education, welfare and housing. We have to make sure we are a party able to speak to the South as well as the North.”
Asked if he had a message for the people of Eastleigh he said:
“Talk to us. We respect the decisions you made.
We know we got a kicking – we acknowledge that and we are going to listen’
Meanwhile Labour Councillors Brian Norgate and Sue Toher were understandably elated to see their party leaders on the towns streets and when local Lib Dem councillor Andy Moore appeared in the Market they tried to persuade him to sign up to the VAT petition.
Andy Moore looked quite bemused to find Labour tanks parked on his lawn and appeared to be phoning the Great Leader to report the incursion.
He declined to sign the petition against the VAT rises – presumably he also in favour of them.
The visit appeared to be a great morale booster to Eastleigh Labour party – who must have been feeling pretty bruised by the election result.
The appearance in the Town of such high profile Labour politicians should serve as a warning to Chris Huhne that he may face a tougher battle to defend his seat whenever the next General Election is called.