Obama’s lesson for Cameron and Miliband

Peter KellnerPresident
July 29, 2013, 7:58 AM GMT+0

As he heads for his holidays, Ed Miliband must be concerned that Labour’s narrow 6% lead may soon disappear. Now that Britain’s economy has started to recover, he is likely to face a Prime Minister who can copy one of the slogans that Barack Obama used last year to secure re-election.

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The President likened America’s economy to a car that his predecessors had driven into a ditch. “I don’t want to give them the keys back,” he said. “They can’t drive”.

This is especially galling for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. They can, and do, remind us that the economy was growing when they left office, that it then stalled under the present government and that most people will be still worse off at the next election than in 2010. But few voters give Labour any credit. Even during 2011 and 2012, when most voters thought that the economy was in a terrible state, they were reluctant to trust the two Eds to do any better.

Now that growth has started to pick up, so have the government’s polling numbers. Compared with 12 months ago, just before last year’s summer break:

  • The numbers saying the economy is doing OK or well has jumped from 17% to 40%

  • The proportion wanting the government to stick to its deficit reduction strategy is up from 28% to 40%
  • The Cameron/Osborne team has extended its lead on economic competence over Miliband/Osborne from a slender three points (34-31%) to a comfortable 13 points (39-26%) – their widest yet

This does not mean the public share George Osborne's view that the economy is "on the mend". 38% think this, while 49% think it continues to bump along the bottom. Yet Labour has failed to pin the blame for this on the Conservatives. Only 32% think the economy would have done better had Labour stayed in power; 43% think it would have got worse.

What can Labour do to improve their prospects? Labour MPs looking to ditch Ed Balls will find scant evidence that anyone else would do any better. Voters have never taken to him; but no other possible shadow chancellor wins public approval either. Even Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor much praised by political insiders, has only limited public appeal.

If Miliband can’t yet prove his party’s economic credentials, his best option for now is to show that he has what it takes to be a tough leader. Back in 1995, Tony Blair lifted his personal ratings sharply, and set himself on the road to Downing Street, by persuading Labour to abandon its historic commitment to state socialism. He did this by calling a special party conference where he vanquished his opponents.

Last week Miliband announced his own special conference – this time to sort out Labour’s relationship with the unions. As with Blair, it’s not the details that will matter, but his ability to stamp his authority on his party. Only if Miliband wins that battle will he earn the chance to persuade voters that he’s safe with the car keys and won’t drive Britain’s economy straight back into the ditch.

This commentary first appeared in the Sunday Times

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