Leader of the Labour party faces many challenges

Almost four years into his leadership of the Labour Party, and with just 10 months to go until next year’s election, Ed Miliband has yet to persuade the electorate that he has the personal qualities needed to lead Britain. As a result, Labour is only narrowly ahead of the Conservatives, instead of enjoying the double-digit lead that oppositions generally need at this stage in the political cycle if they are to return to power.

It’s not just what the polls have been showing. Recent elections tell the same story of Labour’s electoral vulnerability: they led the Tories by just 1 to 2 per cent in the local and European elections, despite the Tories shedding votes to Ukip that are likely to return home next May; and they saw a fall in their vote in Newark—the kind of by-election where Labour performed much more strongly when Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock were opposition leaders.

Miliband’s problem is more personal. By more than four-to-one, voters regard him as weak rather than strong; by three to one they say he is simply not up to the job of Prime Minister. On both measures, Cameron scores more positive than negative responses.

A third comparison of the two men is arguably even more troubling. A poll asked people whether they thought the Prime Minister and opposition leader were “in touch or out of touch with the concerns of people like you.” This is where one might expect Miliband to do well and Cameron badly. That’s half right: only 20 per cent think the Prime Minister is in touch. But Miliband’s figure is only slightly higher: 25 per cent. Tory attacks on Miliband’s ideology have failed, but his opponents in politics and the media have struck home with comments that his family, upbringing, education and career have been far removed from the experiences of normal folk.

If Miliband can neutralise the Tories’ advantage on the economy, then he may be able to shift another indicator that is causing him problems. One big reason for a lack of enthusiasm is a widespread fear that a Miliband government would fail to solve Britain’s big problems. On only one does he come out ahead—and then only just: 40 per cent think his administration would boost home-building, while 38 per cent think it would not. Even more alarmingly, his worst scores relate to the three issues of greatest concern to millions of voters: strengthening the government’s finances (23 per cent say he would succeed, 54 per cent fail), making the economy grow faster (22 per cent against 55 per cent) and reducing the number of immigrants arriving in Britain each year (15 per cent to 64 per cent).

If Labour is to win a real mandate, rather than gamble on crawling past the winning post by default, it must tackle its, and its leader’s, weaknesses. In addition to the normal policy and campaigning challenges that face any opposition, there are four tasks that cannot wait.

First, they must blunt the Tory attack that the last Labour government caused the recession. It’s too late to persuade voters that Gordon Brown was blameless, but Miliband can still argue that leading politicians and bankers around the world (including the Conservatives) misjudged the risks prior to 2008. His opportunity is to say that the world has changed, everyone has lessons to learn, and Labour has learned them.

This leads to the second imperative: Miliband must show that he knows how to harness the dynamism of capitalism to the benefit of all. He has made forays into specific topics, such as energy prices, banks and, more recently, the housing market. Voters have yet to see him join the dots together to provide a bigger picture. “Milibandism” has nothing like the clarity of “Thatcherism.” Nor has he said enough about how Labour would help, rather than merely regulate, businesses to grow. Every Labour pronouncement on business should answer this question: if a young British equivalent of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were starting out today, how would Labour help them to succeed?

This ambition needs Miliband to secure third-party endorsements for each new policy. Privately, some energy company executives support Miliband’s plans to reform their market, just as there are decent bankers and landlords who would welcome new rules for financial services and rented homes. But if any of them have said so publicly, their remarks have gone unnoticed. Voters need to be convinced that Miliband’s plans really will work, and they are unlikely to take his word for it that they will.

Finally, Miliband must start sounding like a Prime Minister in waiting rather than a perpetually angry critic of the coalition. His attacks on Cameron are often well-argued and sometimes witty—but are almost always counter-productive. Despite having been a Cabinet minister, he gives too many voters the impression that he is a rookie debater, not a potential national leader. In 1997, Tony Blair (who had never been any kind of minister) showed that youthful vigour and public respect can go together. Miliband may wish to distance himself from some of Blair’s later decisions, but he needs to find ways to emulate Blair’s early appeal.

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Categories: Europe, International politics

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One Comment on “Leader of the Labour party faces many challenges”

  1. July 1, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

    Labours shadow cabinet has been disappointing.

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