by Kevin Meagher
Helpful chaps those Conservatives.
The Populus opinion poll they conveniently published yesterday, (and which the media dutifully reported), exposes the essential weaknesses that lie behind the double-digit poll leads we have become used to seeing these past few months.
However opportunistic the timing, the findings (in line with other polls) will give Labour strategists sleepless nights.
Two thirds of voters say Labour should have elected David Miliband as party leader in 2010, while 56 per cent of Labour voters agree.
64 per cent of swing voters say they would be “more likely to vote Labour’” if the part “‘had a stronger leader than Ed Miliband” with four out of five believing he is not “prime ministerial.”
Meanwhile 72 per cent of all voters believe “Labour need to apologise for the part they played in causing Britain’s current economic problems before people will trust them again on the economy.” This rises to 81 per cent of undecided voters.
Despite the provenance of this research, the findings brutally expose the three inter-related problems that dog Ed Miliband this week: lingering comparisons with his brother, doubts about his personal qualities and the legacy of the last Labour government.
Starting with the first, there is little more David Miliband could have done to plough his own furrow since he lost to his sibling in that same Manchester conference hall two years ago. He has kept his own counsel and carved out a new, discreet role for himself. There is little either brother can do to address this unhelpful comparison, (or to stop broadcasters repeatedly mixing them up).
The second problem, however, Ed’s personal qualities, is a matter for the man himself to address. It is not enough for Ed to say, like Frank Sinatra, that he is content to do it “my way”. There are objective measures that the public will judge him on – strength, decisiveness, purpose – where he needs to raise his game.
The third problem, addressing the legacy of the last government is a collective issue for the party. Labour has had a good year at the government’s expense. Hence, there has been little appetite to face up to the past and explain what went wrong. Labour ministers from 2008 onwards completely failed in setting the context in which government debt spiralled.
Alastair Darling’s warning in 2008 that we were facing “arguably the worst” economic downturn in 60 years met with denialism across government. His prescience now reads like understatement. Labour should have embraced the scale of the economic cataclysm and tried to galvanise the country behind the tough measures necessary to deal with it.
Any economic upswing in coming months will change the terms of the game and expose the hollowness of the party’s opinion poll lead. The deficit cannot be allowed to mutate into another Winter of Discontent – political folklore that becomes gorier with every retelling. Perhaps it already has; but either way, there is a need to address criticisms, fair and unfair head-on in future.
Ed is now at the point in the political cycle where ambiguity and abstract intellectual meanderings (predistribution anyone?) are simply not going to cut it.
His themes must resonate, with practical examples and clear proposals. Today’s tough talk about separating the retail and investment functions of banks (is that what Vince Cable was texting about?) and a crackdown on the excesses of the private pension industry are redolent of the windfall tax on the privatised utilities which helped New Labour to power in 1997. This is good politics: realistic and specific.
So like Jacob Marley, Ed Miliband must confront three ghosts this week. The comparisons with his brother will disappear for good if Ed shows real strength and clarity this week. Party of that is facing up to the party’s own failings and providing a compelling response to those voters the party needs to win back.
We will have a sense by Tuesday evening if he has done so.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut