Milibands troubles

Peter KellnerPresident
September 26, 2011, 5:56 PM GMT+0

There is no point in beating about the bush. The news is bleak for Labour delegates gathering in Liverpool. Voters think the party is doing badly and its leader is doing worse. Can Ed gain voters’ approval, or is he doomed as leader of Labour?

YouGov conducted pre-conference polls for the Sun and Sunday Times. These show that:

  • 54% think ‘Labour have seriously lost touch with ordinary working people’
  • 60% think ‘Labour still haven’t faced up to the damage they did to the British economy’
  • Only 17% say they would be ‘delighted’ if Labour were to return to power with Ed Miliband as Prime Minister; far more, 41%, would be ‘dismayed’
  • Only 26% think Ed Miliband is doing well as Labour leader
  • 62% think he ‘would not be up to the job of Prime Minister’
  • 45% of Labour supporters think that the party would have been better off with David Miliband as Labour leader; just 6% think it would have been worse off

Miliband has two distinct problems. One is to enthuse the party’s own voters; the other is to reach beyond Labour’s ranks and win converts.

If one looked only at voting intention and ignored both history and other polling data, one might think Labour was doing moderately well. With support steady at around 42%, the party stands 12 points higher than it did in last year’s general election. It is ahead of the Conservatives. However, this is deceptive. Most of this 12-point rise consists of left-of-centre voters who backed the Liberal Democrats last year. They are repelled by the Coalition rather than enthused by Labour.

The more pertinent fact is that, even though the Government is unpopular and the economy is in trouble, support for the Conservatives, on around 37%, have the same level of support as in May last year. In the past, governing parties that are heading for defeat (such as the Tories after 1992 and Labour after 2005) have already lost support by the second year of the parliament – which is where we are today. If Labour is to become favourite to win the next election, it needs to start winning many more votes beyond the ranks of disaffected former Lib Dems.

Worse, Labour’s current 42% looks fragile. It’s not just that so many of the party’s voters think David Miliband would make a better leader. It’s also that 51% of them think Ed Miliband has failed to provide an effective opposition to the government, that one third of them think he is ‘not up to the job of Prime Minister’, and that only 47% of them would be ‘delighted’ if Labour come to power with Ed at the helm.

How much does all this matter? Unless the Coalition falls apart, the next General Election is almost four years away. Much can happen in that time. One of Labour’s headaches just now – and it’s one they would have whoever Labour had chosen as its leader last year – is that the party is still blamed more than the Conservatives for Britain’s economic problems. This is the main reason why the Tories still lead Labour on economic competence, even though Labour retains a narrow lead on voting intention. By 2015, the Tories and Lib Dems will have to take responsibility for their own policies and their consequences. Labour will have some chance of an even fight on managing the economy.

More to the point is that we are less than 18 months away from the last election, when Labour’s share of the vote was its second lowest since 1918. As a general rule, normal voters – the ones who don’t spend their waking hours obsessing about politics – pay little attention to opposition parties they have recently turfed out of office. Some years ago, when the Tories were new to opposition, I likened them to the owners of a shop down an alley. It made no difference how impressive were the wares they placed in the shop window, or how competitively they were priced: if nobody was coming down the alleyway, the shop wouldn’t have any customers.

Labour is in that position today. My guess – and in the absence of a parallel planet where David Miliband won last year’s leadership election, nobody can be certain – is that the party would be where it is today whoever was leading it. It cannot yet escape the curse of the recession and banking crisis that afflicted Britain on Labour’s watch. I believe Ed Miliband’s ratings are weak, not because most voters have studied him closely and found him wanting, but because they have paid him little attention and simply blank Labour as a whole.

If I am right, then all is not yet lost for Labour’s leader. He has time to let anger about the party’s government in record to fade, and time to develop his own appeal. But – and it’s an important but – the danger is real that he could become permanently tarred as a poor leader of a flawed party. Once voters reach a settled view that a party leader is not up to the job, he is doomed: ask Neil Kinnock, William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith.

Two months ago, Miliband’s ratings picked up when he was seen to lead the debate at Westminster about the News of the World and the phone hacking crisis. Since then his figures have faded, but the episode showed that he has the capacity to gain voters’ approval when he finds his voice on an issue that voters care about. If he is to avoid his name being added to the list of doomed leaders, he needs to start finding more such issues as soon as possible.