Labour’s general election managers are treating Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s normally rock-solid constituency as a marginal, according to the party’s official list of its most vulnerable seats leaked to the Evening Standard.
The news comes as two opinion polls show Labour’s lead over the Tories narrowing dramatically.
The list, showing the 106 “key seats” Labour considers most at risk, includes the constituencies of three Cabinet ministers. Labour also believes Education Secretary Ruth Kelly and Transport Secretary Alistair Darling are in danger of defeat. Dozens of seats in London and the South-East are listed as vulnerable amid growing poll evidence that Tony Blair’s “southern appeal” has faded.
The “key seats” are where Labour will target most of its doorstep campaigning, leafleting, phone canvassing and visits by national figures.
Most on the list are genuine marginals with majorities of only a few thousand or less. But some highly marginal seats are not included and several seats normally thought totally safe are on the list. The inclusion of Mr Straw’s Blackburn constituency is the clearest sign yet of just how worried campaign managers are about the anti-war vote.
One Labour insider said: “Turnout and the disaffection of the core vote are issues for us.”
Blackburn has been Labour-held without a break since 1945. Mr Straw had a majority of nearly 10,000 at the last election and won more votes than all his rivals put together. The Tories, who came a distant second last time, have put Blackburn more than 200th on their list of target seats and for the Liberal Democrats it is 384th.
But Blackburn is heavily Muslim and a high turnout of Muslim voters enraged about the Iraq war is expected. The Tory candidate in Blackburn, Imtiaz Ameen, is a Muslim and was against the war.
“Jack Straw has been relying on the Muslim vote for too long,” said Mr Ameen. “He was part of the decision-making process which led to thousands of Iraqi Muslims being killed – and that rankles with the Muslim community. They will not support him as they have done before. Labour clearly do feel vulnerable in Blackburn because they’ve done two leaflet drops since I was selected in December. They never used to do anything until just before the election.”
Several of the other safe seats on the list also have high numbers of Muslim voters. In London, the list includes the East End seat of Bethnal Green and Bow, where the pro-war Labour MP, Oona King, faces a challenge from Respect’s George Galloway.
Ms King’s seat is theoretically one of the safest in London with a majority of more than 26 per cent. But Bethnal Green’s Bangladeshi voters, who make up half the electorate, are expected to desert Labour in droves.
An ICM poll this week showed Labour’s overall lead cut to three per cent, with a Mori survey in the Financial Times showing a two per cent lead.
Despite this, it is unlikely that all the seats on the at-risk list will be lost by Labour. Even the latest opinion polls suggest they will lose about 40 seats – still giving them a majority of nearly 100.
Sir Robert Worcester, chairman of Mori, who did Labour’s private polling for many years, said: “What Labour are frightened of is not losing the election but winning it with a majority of 40, and then having more than 40 rebels in the parliamentary Labour Party. This list is about putting the frighteners on the troops.”
The second-place challengers in the vast majority of the “key seats” are the Conservatives, again showing that Labour does not appear to be too worried about a Liberal Democrat “protest vote.” This may simply be because there are so few seats.