No bounce for Ed

October 18, 2010, 6:59 PM GMT+0

Ed Miliband has now been Labour’s leader for three weeks. By general consent he won his first exchange with David Cameron last week at Prime Minister’s Questions. The Government has been buffeted, not least by newspapers that are normally friendly to it, by plans to curb child benefit and increase university tuition fees. This ought to be a good time for Labour to gain support.

So here’s a strange thing: the bounce in party support has been the feeblest for any new Labour leader for more than half a century (just one point, the lowest since Hugh Gaitskell in 1955).

Key points

  • Party support bounce following Ed Miliband's election at just one point
  • Sampling error could mean that there has, in fact, been no bounce at all
  • It's possible this is due to the fact that Ed Miliband remains an unknown quantity to voters: 42% don't know how he is doing as leader
  • Similarly, Labour's wider image doesn't appear to have improved among voters
  • However, it should be noted that Labour support is already up 9 points on the General Election figures
  • The question is, then: will the electorate be more impressed by a four-year political marathon than by Ed's initial conference sprint?

See complete figures here

Given sampling error, it is possible that there has been no ‘Miliband bounce’ at all; or that there was a tiny bounce during Labour’s conference, and it has now gone.

An 'unknown quantity?

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that Miliband himself remains an unknown quantity to most voters. Our latest poll for the Sunday Times finds that 38% think he is doing well, 20% think he is doing badly – and 42% don’t know. So although his net rating is a healthy plus 18 (which is better than David Cameron, now on plus 11, and Nick Clegg, minus 6), the larger truth is that his public image is currently too fuzzy to enable him to lift Labour’s rating through the character of his leadership.

The second reason is that Labour’s wider image has not so far greatly improved. From time we list a series of attributes and ask people whether they apply most to Labour, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. Here are the latest figures for Labour compared with those before Miliband became leader.

‘It seems rather old and tired’: before 44%, after 41%

‘Even if I don’t always agree with it, at least its heart is in the right place’: before 30%, after 28%

‘The kind of society it wants is broadly the kind of society I want’: before 27%, after 27%

‘It seems to appeal to one section of society rather than the whole country’: before 21%, after 24%

‘It is led by people of real ability’: before 18%, after 19%

‘It seems to have succeeded in moving on and left its past behind it’: before 15%, after 18%

‘Its leaders are prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions: before 14%, after 11%

Someone looking at these figures, and Labour’s voting support, and having no other information, would deduce that nothing significant had happened – certainly nothing as potentially transformative as the election of a new party leader.

Establishing credentials

Miliband could counter this analysis with three points: with around 39% support, Labour stands nine points up on its general election support, so a further big advance would have been hard to achieve; he has plenty of time until the next general election to establish his credentials as a prospective Prime Minister; and past leadership bounces have often proved short-lived.

There is something in all these points. Perhaps the real lesson from these findings is that Miliband has a hard task ahead of him: to get noticed by the electorate, then to get respected, and then to persuade voters that Labour has changed sufficiently to be worth re-electing to office. This will require more than taking advantage of the mounting problems the coalition faces as it imposes public spending cuts. Miliband can probably look forward to occasional, spectacular mid-term local- and by-election triumphs; the real question is whether he can establish a reputation for himself and his party to retain enough of these mid-term gains at the next general election. Initial, largely favourable, wall-to-wall publicity had little impact; will the electorate be more impressed by his four-year political marathon than by the initial conference sprint?

This article also appears as a Commentary