Miliband has failed to follow the first rule of opposition

Published by The Independent (10th November, 2014)

There is a certain choreography parties perform when a leader is in trouble. First they deny any divisions even as rumbling concerns erupt into open contempt. Then they reshuffle the inner circle in a way that only inflames internal tensions. Loyalists are sent out to tour broadcasting studios blaming newspapers for spreading malicious lies. Finally, ‘insiders’ say if only Ed (or Gordon, or Iain, or Michael) could meet more voters, the electorate would agree he is a fine fellow – while conceding there must be more focus on other senior figures.

Over the last few days Labour has rapidly run through this crisis checklist, confirming the depth of their dilemma just six months before a general election. While the Tories have a leader who boosts their appeal to voters, the party is stuck with someone who seems to become a bigger drag on prospects by the day. Sunday papers had another slew of grim headlines, with one reporting that 20 shadow ministers want Ed Miliband to quit, another saying only one-third of Labour voters thought he was up to being Prime Minister and a third revealing how the party’s poll lead would double under a couple of rivals.

These findings are not just causing alarm in Labour circles. The Tories also worry Miliband might be dumped since their hope of victory relies upon his dismal failure to connect with the public. Downing Street strategists tell me they expect to remain the biggest party in parliament after next year’s general election; when pressed, this is largely on the basis they believe many people in polling booths will recoil from putting crosses by candidates who will help make Miliband PM.

This “tsunami of craperoo” – as Labour’s leader reportedly called the outburst of agitation against him – is unsurprising. Miliband is now seen in a less favourable light than Nick Clegg, who has been breaking all records for unpopularity since joining the coalition and breaching election promises. Indeed, there were laughs on one BBC discussion show I joined at the weekend when a fellow guest said Miliband was being outshone in the charisma stakes by the Liberal Democrat leader.

It is never good for a political leader to become the butt of laughter. But having unexpectedly – and skillfully – seized the Labour crown, Miliband failed to follow the first rule of opposition: either you define yourself quickly or others do it for you. David Cameron understood this perfectly in the months after becoming Tory leader, using stunts such as cycling to parliament and sledging with huskies to highlight that he was a new and more modern Conservative. This was not just to implant an attractive personal image, but also to change perceptions of his party.

Without a compelling personal or political story, Miliband floated pointy-headed ideas such as pre-distribution that meant nothing to voters while failing to hammer home messages that might connect such as on the cost of living and high energy prices. Behind the scenes lay nervousness he was too much of a north London intellectual, too wonkish, and too left-wing to fully reveal himself to the electorate – combined with woeful failure to tackle the party’s legacy of economic incompetence. Then came that toe-curling attempt to rectify this three months ago with a speech saying he was not a politician ‘from central casting.’

Like it or not, image matters for political leaders. But from the start focus groups found voters said two things about Miliband: he stabbed his brother in the back to get the top job and seemed ‘weird’. The Labour leader’s failure to challenge perceptions and broaden his appeal paved the path for his descent into joke terrain. Now he is the man who cannot eat a bacon sandwich, pull on a T-shirt or give money to a beggar without sparking snide comments and a flurry of vines.

Lord Ashcroft likes to remind politicians that most people are far too busy to spend much time thinking about their games in Westminster, so little of what they do percolates through to the public. These kind of caricatures do, however, filter through the fog of battle and mute the message; one result is the spate of polls finding a sharp rise in numbers who view Miliband as weak, ill-defined politically and not up to the job of prime minister.

This did not matter so much when Labour was confident of creeping over the electoral finishing line by relying on a core vote strategy. Strategists were counting on the 29 per cent who stuck with them at the last election even under the abysmal Gordon Brown, combined with those left-leaning Lib Dem defectors repelled by taking office with the Tories. This coalition of voters, they hoped, would propel them back to power while ensuring immunity to wider concerns over the leader and their ability to run the economy.

The defensive alliance might yet be enough to win; Labour remains ahead in many polls, has in-built electoral advantage and there is bitter schism on the right. But what a short-sighted strategy in an age of political disruption, amid profound contempt for conventional politics and the steady rise of insurgents to left and right. As the party panics, debates alternative leaders and descends into the gutter on immigration it is not just their leader but their complacency, their tactics and their pessimism that is in the spotlight. Such issues will not be solved by simply switching leaders.

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