Is Ed’s leadership doomed to fail?
As readers and communicants will know, His Grace is a fully paid up member of (it’s free) and Hon. Chaplain to DUEMA, and so prohibited by its founding charter from doing anything which may imperil the status and standing of HM Leader of the Opposition the Rt Hon Edward Miliband MP. So here’s a guest post by Zach Johnstone:
You won’t hear too many Labour MPs saying so, but this was the week that was supposed to revive Ed Miliband’s ailing leadership fortunes. With a negative poll rating that presently sits somewhere between that of Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard at similar junctures in their inauspicious leaderships, the party desperately required a red letter day (in fact, a whole series of them) in order to ensure its continued relevance in the domestic political landscape, particularly with both the local and mayoral elections now just four months away.
For Ed, the backdrop to success is the ‘battle of ideas’. Without the power to effect change directly, he has spoken on numerous occasions of the need for Labour to project itself as the party pioneering solutions to the country’s ills; in other words, he wants his party to provide a credible alternative to the Coalition and to act like a government-in-waiting. His vision is a Labour Party forcing the political agenda through an awareness of the issues that really matter to voters; with this in mind, Ed embarked upon a series of public appearances in recent days in order to set out his stall and attempt to gain traction with an electorate that has, until now, shown little faith in his credentials for the highest office in the land. Having conducted several interviews with various national newspapers in order to convey his ‘human side’, all that was left was to flesh out his policy initiatives and wait for his fortunes to change.
As it transpires, it was all for nothing. Despite his considerable efforts the latest polling data from YouGov suggests that throughout the past week Labour has actually lost ground, dropping two percentage points. A series of meticulously-planned speeches and television interviews intended to propel Miliband to the fore of the news agenda managed only to reinforce the perception that the Labour leader is hopelessly vacillating. Worryingly for the stability of the party, Cameron’s accusation of “flip-flopping” at Prime Minister’s Questions was met with little more than an agitated murmur by the Labour backbenchers, perhaps redolent of a growing consensus amongst the party’s parliamentary members that Ed is not the man to lead them to electoral victory in 2015.
Frustratingly for Mr Miliband, it is difficult to see what he should be doing differently. The issues upon which he has chosen to focus – notably bank bonuses, executive pay and exorbitant energy bills – are precisely the things that many people expect their politicians to be tackling. He was not the first, as he speciously asserts, to decry crony capitalism, but he has certainly led the way in forcing the subject up the political agenda. He played his part in persuading energy companies such as EDF to cut their bills by as much as 5% this week, and he has ensured that the bonus of the Chief Executive of the publicly-owned Royal Bank of Scotland, Stephen Hester, is receiving appropriate scrutiny. In fact, by and large, Ed has been pushing the very issues that should be drawing Labour’s core voters (and swing voters, for that matter) out in their droves.
So why, if he is talking about the right things, is he failing to attract supporters?
Certainly, part of Miliband’s problem is the distinct lack of clarity on offer, especially with regard to the economy. His assertion that his party presently opposes the Coalition’s economic trajectory but that it cannot pledge to reverse cuts to public services in three-and-a-half years’ time is, given the continually changing nature of the economy, eminently rational, yet his failure to articulate this view with sufficient intelligibility has led to accusations of vagueness. His interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday was, at times, painful for this very reason, as was Harriet Harman’s similarly ungainly appearance on the Daily Politics. But vagueness is not, in itself, enough to keep a credible candidate or party down, as aptly demonstrated by Mitt Romney’s success in the Republican nominations in spite of his refusal to publish his tax returns.
Where Miliband is concerned there seems to be more at play than political strategy.
Take the differing fortunes of the two main parties when pursuing the same tactic. In the run-up to the 2010 general election David Cameron determined that in order to attract voters, the Conservative Party stood to gain more by explaining the harsh economic reality to the electorate and, paradoxically, setting out an austere vision for the next five years. Where electoral convention dictates that candidates must don rose-tinted glasses and espouse a rhetoric replete with optimism, Cameron and his colleagues readily admitted that a Conservative administration would cut public expenditure to such an extent that the United Kingdom’s entire structural deficit would be eliminated by 2015, a frankness that was rewarded (more or less) by the electorate. However as Ed Miliband sought to display similar candour this week by refusing to commit to increased public spending without knowing where the money would come from, he was met with a torrent of abuse. This was led by Unite leader Len McCluskey who, in a characteristically ignorant tirade, criticised Ed’s guarded approach (clearly the only way to placate the Labour Left is to commit to unbridled increases in public spending irrespective of the size of the national deficit). When Miliband attempted the Cameron approach, integrity and a desire to be honest counted for nothing.
So having established that the substance is more or less there, and that ambiguity isn’t terminal, we come to the crux of the matter: the harsh reality for Miliband is that this is about image.
Just as significant as saying the right things is how you look and sound when you do so. Whether it is the slightly nasal voice, his irrepressible blinking or his lack of charisma, Miliband does not look prime ministerial. It was, of course, rather uncouth of John Humphrys to ‘pose this point’ to Miliband in quite so forthright a manner as he did, but it rather reaffirms the point. Rightly or wrongly, it seems to play on people’s minds to a greater extent, even, than the carefully thought-out policy initiatives that Miliband is entreating people to support. It is a galling thought for the Labour leader, for if his problems are rooted in such unalterable factors then it is difficult to see what he can do to reverse his own – and his party’s - fortunes. The Labour Party may have to consider the prospect that with Ed at the helm, anything other than five more years in opposition seems greatly optimistic.
In a speech on responsible capitalism delivered on Thursday, Ed ‘encouraged’ prospective voters to judge the Government ‘on their deeds and not on their words’. To be judged on his words would, at this stage, represent a welcome reprieve for Mr Miliband.