Friday, 14 November 2014

In defence of Ed Miliband

Perhaps I'm the last person in the country -- but I still like Ed Miliband. More than that, I think he could be a pretty good prime minister. Yes, I know there aren't many of us left, and I want to try to analyse why.

Let's leave aside all those voters who would never dream of voting Labour anyway.  And those who couldn't possibly vote for a party whose leader "looks weird". And those who would never vote for anyone at all. The people who interest me are the voters who do intend to vote, who may well have voted Labour in the past (especially when Tony Blair was leader), but who now cannot imagine themselves voting Labour again.

According to a recent YouGov opinion poll, nearly 40 per cent of voters think Labour cares more about the lives of ordinary people than other parties do. You might think that should convert into lots of votes from ordinary people.

But then you look at some other figures: which party has the better team of leaders? Who's more competent? Who has more ideas for making the country better? On every count, the Tories do better than Labour.

Most people have better things to do than follow the day-by-day (more often minute-by-minute) twists and turns of Westminster politics. They form their political views from a mix of sources: family and friends; TV; the newspapers.

As it happens, many of Mr Miliband's ideas are popular. According to a poll carried out in September, Labour's policies on the NHS, the minimum wage, apprenticeships, the self-employed, and energy pricing are all backed by more than half the voters who were asked.

On their own, though, popular policies are not enough. The politicians proposing them must also be regarded as credible -- pollsters like to say it's a bit like choosing a surgeon or a plumber: even if you're confident that they know what to do, you also need to be confident that they will be able to do it. 

So try this as an experiment: next time you're with a group of friends, ask them what they think of Ed Miliband. Then ask them the same question about David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

My guess is that many of your friends will say something along the lines of "They're all the same. Can't tell them apart. Wouldn't trust any of them." You may well say the same yourself.

According to YouGov, people who dislike Ed Miliband describe him as unconvincing, unelectable, out of his depth, weak and irritating. Those who like him (yes, it's a much smaller number) say he stands up for ordinary people, is intelligent, honest, genuine and decent.

It doesn't help that the leaders of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems look much the same and sound much the same. It also doesn't help that the economic crisis from which we are only now beginning to emerge began under Labour, and continued under the Tory-LibDem coalition -- so if you've been suffering the consequences of casino banking and austerity for the past five years, it's extremely tempting (and by no means entirely unjustified) to blame the lot of them.

They all make the same promises; they all blame each other; they all "passionately believe" that they have all the answers. I suspect one reason, although not the main one, why Nigel Farage is doing so well is simply that he looks and sounds different.

Mr Farage is a big problem for Mr Miliband, and not only because he cynically articulates the fears of some traditional Labour voters. He takes up huge amounts of media space that might otherwise be occupied by Labour. UKIP is simply more interesting than Labour at the moment; it's the new kid on the block; it's news, not history. The same goes for the SNP, whose vertiginous rise in popularity threatens to lose Labour sackloads of Scottish seats next May.

So Mr Miliband struggles to find airtime other than when his own party succumbs to one of its periodic bouts of internecine insanity. Add to that the determination of his right-wing media critics to damage him at every opportunity, and you have a dangerously toxic brew. It did for Neil Kinnock, and it may well do for Mr Miliband as well.

He told the BBC's Nick Robinson that he's "not in the whingeing business" about media coverage. (It's worth watching the interview here.) What else can he say? But he needs urgently to assemble a media team who can do for Labour in 2015 what Alastair Campbell did for the party pre-1997. I have the impression that Mr Miliband tends to care more about getting the ideas right than about selling them -- admirable, but also short-sighted.

Sometimes he reminds me of Barack Obama: they are both thoughtful men with interesting ideas, and they both have ruthless ambition that they disguise well. (Obama challenged Hillary Clinton when no one thought she could be beaten; Mr Miliband challenged his own brother in an act of breath-taking audacity.)

The result of next year's general election may well be a total mess. David Aaronovitch of The Times summed it up well: "The bookies …  very roughly suggest a 20 per cent chance of a Tory victory, a 20 per cent chance of a Labour one, 20 per cent of one or the other ending up in coalition with the Lib Dems and a 40 per cent chance of no two parties being able to form a majority government together."

I wouldn't be at all surprised if we end up having two general elections next year, just as we did in 1974. If the May election leaves the country ungovernable, there'll be nothing for it but to ask voters to go to the polls again and hope for a clearer answer. (In 1974, a minority Labour government led by Harold Wilson was elected in February and then re-elected in October with an overall majority of just three. By 1977, it had lost its majority and signed the Lib-Lab pact, which enabled it to limp on until it was swept away by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.)

In the meantime, perhaps someone will notice that, according to the Financial Times, Treasury officials fear that David Cameron's tax cut promises "risk undermining fragile public finances and could be 'a disaster' -- and that according to one of his own Foreign Office ministers, the Lib Dem Lord (William) Wallace, Britain has no coherent foreign policy and is sinking into “sullen and suspicious nationalism”.

In my view, we deserve better.

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