Ed: Lessons from history

Peter KellnerPresident
January 09, 2012, 9:34 AM GMT+0

As Labour leader Ed Miliband sees his worst ratings yet, Peter Kellner compares them to past leaders to judge Miliband's position

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It has frequently been said, not least by me, that while the Conservatives frequently depose their leaders, Labour never does. In fact, the people’s party did just that on one occasion, albeit many years ago. Later in this blog I shall return to the fate of John Robert Clynes – what do you mean, you have never heard of him? – but first, the figures that help to explain why sections of the media are speculating about Ed Miliband’s future.

YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times reports Ed Miliband’s worst ratings yet. Just 20% think he is doing well as Labour’s leader, while 66% say he is doing badly. This net score of minus 46 compares with minus 31 in mid-December, and his previous worst, minus 35 in late November. For the first time, albeit by the narrowest margin, fewer people think he is doing well than Nick Clegg (21%).

Now, these figures reflect the impact of some pretty bad media headlines. I would be surprised if Miliband’s figures don’t recover over the next few weeks. But suppose his true underlying rating is, say, minus 30, how much comfort can he take from that?

His allies defend his poll numbers with the following argument: Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron were also unpopular at the same stage in their leaderships, yet the following general elections propelled them to Downing Street; suggestions that he is Labour’s William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith, and destined for failure, are, they say, ridiculous.

Let’s check the numbers. Here are the net ratings of these leaders when they, like Miliband today, had been opposition leader for 15-16 months. (The figures for Thatcher and Hague are from Gallup, which asked a slightly different question, but this wording difference is unlikely to make a massive difference to the net scores.)

Thatcher, May 1976: minus 10

Hague, September 1998: minus 31

Duncan Smith, January 2003: minus 56

Cameron, March 2007: plus 13

Now, poll numbers can fluctuate. So, to provide a fuller context, here are the averages for the leaders in their second year at the helm:

Thatcher: minus 10

Hague: minus 26

Duncan Smith: minus 39

Cameron: plus 1

Miliband (so far): minus 32

It’s clear from those figures that Miliband’s figures are far worse than those of Thatcher or Cameron at the same stage in their careers. He hovers roughly half way between Hague and Duncan Smith – not happy precedents.

Or, if one wants to delve into the record of past Labour opposition leaders, here are their second-year averages, according to Gallup:

Michael Foot: minus 54

Neil Kinnock: minus 13

John Smith (who died just before completing his second year as leader): plus 18

Tony Blair: plus 39

Those figures speak for themselves, and Miliband won’t like what they say. He can’t be happy that he is less well regarded than Kinnock was, or that, of all the opposition leaders in recent British history, only Foot and Duncan Smith had worse ratings.

Of course, things can change. On the day before his second anniversary as Labour leader, Kinnock delivered his celebrated assault on Labour’s Militant Tendency (‘…the grotesque spectacle of a Labour council – a LABOUR council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers…’). It transformed his ratings. In one month he climbed from minus 23 to plus 15. So courage can make a difference.

On the other hand, Kinnock never led Labour to victory; so although Miliband could usefully learn from Labour’s slow journey back to electability in the Thatcher/Major years, he (and his party) probably have higher aspirations than to match Kinnock’s record.

This brings us back to media speculation about Miliband’s future, and the cautionary tale of the one successful attempt to unseat a sitting party leader.

JR Clynes, a trade unionist from Oldham, had been elected party leader (technically in those days, Chairman of the party’s MPs) in February 1921. Although one of the party’s least known leaders he was arguably one of its most successful. In the 1922 election Labour more than doubled its number of MPs, winning 142 seats. However, in two ways that proved to be Clynes’ undoing.

First, one of Labour’s ‘new’ MPs was Ramsay MacDonald. He had been an MP before – from 1906 to 1918 – and had, indeed, led the party from 1911 until 1914, when he resigned because he opposed the party’s support for Britain’s involvement in the First World War. Back in Parliament in November 1922, he was ambitious to resume the post he had surrendered eight years earlier.

Secondly, Labour was now, unquestionably, Britain’s main opposition party. But the Speaker did not want the party to acquire the full rights of His Majesty’s Opposition, and some Labour MPs criticised Clynes for not standing up to the Speaker.

The showdown took place on November 22, eight days after the election. More than 20 MPs were absent – mainly Clynes supporters, new to Parliament, who were trade union officials and who had yet to disentangle themselves from their union commitments. Clynes assumed he would be re-elected unopposed, and let them stay away. Macdonald, however, had quietly but effectively organised his support. He challenged Clynes and won by 61 votes to 56. Fourteen months later MacDonald was Prime Minister. (Fourteen years later, MacDonald was out of power, out of Parliament and largely discredited; but that’s another story.)

Lessons for today? First, even Labour Party leaders are not completely safe. Second, behind-the-scenes organisation can be decisive. Third, as has been said before in other contexts, history is written by those who turn up. Fourth a narrow victory in questionable circumstances need not ruin a party’s electoral prospects.

That last point, of course, helps Miliband: the fact that he defeated his brother narrowly thanks to his friends in the trade unions, might bother his opponents inside the party but matters little with the wider public.

So, what should Labour MPs do now? Their wisest course is to reject the notion that Miliband is the sole source of their problems – or, in contrast, that he is their sole means of salvation. It’s a judgement call whether any other leader over the past 15 months would have navigated Labour to a larger lead over the Tories. In my view, Miliband is unpopular largely because Labour remains unpopular. Deciding either to keep or change leader is the easy bit: the real challenge is to change the party.

Labour MPs could do worse than recall Cassius’s words in Julius Caesar: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves’.

See the latest survey details and full results from The Sunday Times poll here

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