Miliband: we back his policies but not the man

Peter KellnerPresident
May 12, 2014, 2:19 PM GMT+0

I have some good news for Ed Miliband – and some less good news.

Let’s start with the positives. YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times finds that voters back Labour’s leader on a wide range of current controversies:

  • By four-to-one, we support a two-year freeze of gas and electricity prices
  • By three-to-one we want to curb the power of landlords to raise the rents of sitting tenants
  • Also by three-to-one we think Britain’s railways should be renationalised (Miliband does not go as far as that, though some Labour MPs and candidates would like him to.)
  • By two-to-one we want owners of homes they leave empty to pay more council tax
  • By almost three-to-one we think the Government should have the power to halt foreign takeovers of British companies such as AstraZeneca

With one exception, more Conservative voters side with Miliband on these issues than oppose him. The exception is railway renationalisation. On this, Tories divide evenly: 42% support, 42% oppose. Even that is scarcely a resounding vote from Margaret Thatcher’s party for the merits of the free market.

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For once, Labour voters back Miliband’s position overwhelmingly on all these issues. Many have observed that one of his achievements has been to keep his party together following its defeat in 2010. Labour has not seen anything like the bitter divisions that helped to make it unelectable after it lost power in 1979 (or, indeed, the less dramatic but also fraught internal battles that followed its defeats in 1951 and 1970).

However, even if the party’s MPs have shown more discipline than in the past, Labour’s voters since 2010 have often displayed rather greater dissent. Not this time. On none of the issues listed above, does Miliband offend more than a small minority of his party’s supporters.

Now to the less good news. Given the popularity of Miliband’s recent proposals, and the publicity he has gained for them, he and his party ought to be gaining ground. They are not. True, Labour’s lead in our latest survey is 7% – at the higher end of recent polls. It follows four YouGov polls last week putting just Labour 1-3% ahead. If we allow for sampling fluctuations, I reckon Labour is currently 3-4 points ahead of the Conservatives. The lead has not widened as a result of recent controversies; at least not yet.

Nor have Miliband’s own ratings improved. Just 27% say he is doing well, much the same as through the spring. And when we repeated a series of questions we asked in late March, we find no increase in the low numbers who:

  • consider him a strong leader (14%)
  • think he makes it clear what he stands for (26%)
  • reckon he is up to the job of Prime Minister (23%)

On these points, worrying large minorities of Labour voters remain unconvinced.

In short, Miliband has so far failed to convert enthusiasm for his policies into support for his leadership. The reason is that he is still losing the ‘valence’ war with David Cameron. ‘Valence’ is the term political scientists use to describe that bundle of qualities that tend to matter most to swing voters – competence, honesty, strength of character and so on. Parties and their leaders can announce the world’s most popular policies; they will still lose if voters think they aren’t up to the job of governing Britain, or won’t keep their word, or will duck tough choices.

There is still time for Miliband to address these doubts. Devising popular policies is a start – they are plainly far better than unpopular policies. But they are only a start. The biggest challenge facing Miliband’s latest recruit, David Axelrod, the campaign strategist who guided Barack Obama to his two victories, is to tackle his new client’s valence deficit.

The second bit of bad news is trickier. We asked a number of questions about Pfizer’s bid to acquire AstraZeneca. By a clear margin we don’t like it. Only 10% of us think it would be good for British industry. By 60-16% we think Pfizer would break their assurances to keep research and development in the UK. By 54-16% we want the takeover blocked – and by 61-22% we want the Government to have the general power to decide whether foreign takeovers of British companies should go ahead.

All of this should cheer Miliband and worry Cameron. However, I suspect the real beneficiary of this argument is neither man, but UKIP’s Nigel Farage. Consider the results to this question:

To make sense of those figures, let’s ponder a day in the life of the kind of British worker who belongs to the 64%. When she wakes up she brews a cup of tea, courtesy of Thames Water, EDF energy and Tetleys. She enjoys Weetabix for breakfast while she reads the Sun, drives her Mini to her job at Heathrow, keeps going with Nescafe and Cadbury’s chocolate, buys her lunchtime sandwich at Boots, and stops off at and Asda on her way home to buy Kraft Macaroni Cheese for dinner, washed down with Strongbow cider.

At every point in her day she depends on foreign-owned companies and does so without complaint. Indeed, many of her choices reflect their success in giving people what they want. This is globalisation in practice. Not everybody benefits all the time, but most economists reckon that the gains far outweigh the losses.

That’s not how most Britons see it. Even as many of us work for foreign-owned companies, and virtually all of us buy at least some of their goods and services, we don’t really like what’s been happening to British jobs and companies.

Why is this? A clue can be found in the way supporters of different parties respond to this question. In each case a clear majority dislikes foreign ownership but, by some margin, the greatest hostility is to be found among UKIP supporters.

This suggests that the driving force behind opposition to foreign takeovers is a broad complaint about Britain losing control of its destiny, rather than a practical judgement about the costs and benefits of overseas investment in UK companies. We behave in our daily lives as if we accept the argument that an open economy gives us a more prosperous economy – but, when asked, say we don’t.

That, I think, is one of the reasons why UKIP is gaining support – and why Miliband is not benefiting as much as he must hope from his stand on Pfizer and AstraZeneca. It’s not so much that people don’t want those specific takeovers that fail a public interest test; they don’t want foreign takeovers at all.

Or rather, they say they don’t. Were we to experiment with autarky and bar all foreign investment in the UK, the price we would pay in lost jobs and plummeting living standards would quickly become apparent.

But for the moment few of us think like that. We like the idea of saying boo to the outside world, when we can do so cost-free. Next week we shall have an opportunity to do precisely that. Millions of us will vote UKIP without having to worry that a victory for Farage will force, say, Nissan to close its hugely successful car factory in the North-East, or P&O’s (owned by a Dubai-based parent company) to stop ferrying British holidaymakers across the Channel.

So Miliband has a problem – but so do Cameron and Nick Clegg. All three leaders support foreign investment in principle, even if they disagree on details. The Pfizer/AstraZaneca saga has exposed a public hostility to global business that none of them can welcome.

See Sunday Times results

Image: Getty