Labour upbeat over election ground war

Delivering election leaflets Image copyright AP
Image caption Labour is focusing on local contact

A Labour meltdown in Scotland is potentially so dramatic, and might have such far reaching consequences for the complexion of not just the next government, but also the future of the left in the UK, that there are very good reasons why it has drawn so much attention.

One Labour strategist says, frustrated, "if it wasn't for Scotland we would be looking at 310, 320, maybe even a majority".

What happens will matter enormously, no question.

Strategically, it makes sense for the Tories to try to draw voters back to them by talking up the "threat" of a Labour administration that can only function with SNP support, and for the SNP to suggest they would usher in Labour to neutralise the feeling many Scottish voters have harboured for a long time that there is no point voting for the SNP in a general election because only Labour can beat the Tories.

But if we are trying to work out what is actually going on, rather than just focusing on the extraordinary drama of the Scottish saga, it is just as important to look at what is happening - and who is winning - in the territories where, traditionally, general elections are won and lost.

Those are the marginal seats where the incumbent MP has less than a majority of 10%.

And by that equation there are 194 seats where voters' decisions can shift the outcome for the country, according to this BBC estimate.

Marginal seats:

There is no fixed definition of a marginal: but if we choose to define them for the 2015 election as seats with majorities of 10% or less that require a swing of 5% for the incumbent party to lose, then there are currently 194 such marginal seats in Britain:

82 are Conservative

79 Labour

27 Lib Dem


2 Plaid

1 Green

Labour optimism

The important thing is the big majority of those seats where there could be a change - unlike the majority of parliamentary seats that don't change party allegiance for decades - are in England.

Image caption Marginal seats in England will be vital to the election result

And the conversations with voters that are being logged and reported on by Labour activists in those kinds of seats, are a big part of the reason why - although Ed Miliband's team won't say it publicly - that the party believes it has some reasons to be cheerful, not about winning outright, but that hard graft may well pay off.

Labour sources tell Newsnight that its ground campaign is, in many parts of the country, better run, and more fruitful than their opponents' efforts.

They now have 200 organisers working in the field, have spoken to 2 million voters since the start of the year and are well on their way to speaking to more than 4 million voters by the time polling day comes.

The belief, it is one to one contact, not the vigorous war being fought on our TV screens and in newspaper columns, that will shift opinions.

They make great play of their online efforts too - with around 20,000 people signing up to volunteer through their digital campaign since the start of the year.

Talking to voters

Although the Conservatives are significantly better financed, Labour believes they are out-manning and out-playing them in some places.

In the first phase of the campaign numbers from the market research firm Opinium suggested Labour had talked to 40% of potential voters, nearly twice as many as the Tories, on 21%.

Some 65% of likely voters have had some form of party literature from Labour, only 42% from the Conservatives.

Lord Ashcroft, the Conservative peer who has been behind enormous marginal polling studies has often reported a similar picture - that the Labour ground war seems in many parts of the country to be reaching more voters.

What's that, I hear you cry? "They would say that, wouldn't they?"

Well of course, but in talking to candidates privately - it is more rare to find a Conservative candidate who is enthusiastic about the progress of their campaign, than a Labour candidate who believes their ground war is going much better than they had expected.

It is the pavement pounding, the envelope stuffing, and the persuasion in close seats that really counts.

However fascinating and fundamental the way voters are shifting in Scotland, just because something new becomes vitally important, the old rules do still apply.

The marginals still matter.

PS I can't help myself but noting however one staggering fact as it looks likely that Scotland is heading towards a total inversion of its Westminster representatives.

In 2010 not a single Scottish seat changed hands. This time, nearly all of them might.

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