Miliband must make, not accept, the political weather

by Jonathan Todd

“Are our problems so deep nobody can actually make a difference to them? My emphatic answer to that is yes.” The state of the nation was revealed in Ed Miliband’s slip of the tongue in the run-up to the local elections. Only one in three of those eligible to vote in these elections bothered to do so, down 10 points from when these seats were last contested in the halcyon days of 2009. Where given the opportunity, one in four voters gave their support to Ukip, which is as near as it gets to voting ‘none of the above’.

This is no glad, confident morning. It is a nervous twilight. “When Cameron talks”, as Rick Nye notes, “about the global race – the opportunities that lie ahead for Britain and the risks of being left behind” – those that voted Ukip “look at their very personal race, and fear it has already been run. They feel they have been abandoned by all political parties. It is no accident that Ukip does disproportionately well among older, non-graduate, white men.”

One Nation Labour is yet to convince that it can build hope in this cold climate. Politicians make, as well as experience, the weather, however. Perhaps voters would be more confident about the future if Ed Miliband seemed to them more of a prime minister in the waiting with answers to their problems.

Conservatives have long insisted that Cameron looks more prime ministerial than Miliband. Given that Cameron is presently the prime minister, this is to be expected. Yet Miliband is behind where Cameron and Tony Blair were at the same stages in their leaderships in terms of being perceived ready to be prime minister.

While 19 percent more voters thought Jim Callaghan “the best PM” than thought Margaret Thatcher in the last poll before the 1979 election, the sea change that was that election still swept Callaghan from office. His current polling may not be a barrier to Miliband being a similar sea change prime minister.

But Miliband should not assume such a sea change or that he would be its beneficiary. It’s hard to look at the rise of Ukip and feel we are living in a country moving to the left. This rise has contributed to Cameron finally abandoning his modernisation project and adopting policies reminiscent of their 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns: tough on welfare, strident on immigration and offering a referendum on the EU.

These campaigns were not great successes for the Conservatives and it may require the opposite of what Miliband seems to anticipate for these policies to lead to a more successful outcome in 2015: a rightward shift in the electorate. Equally, reality may be more nuanced. The public may be moving right on some issues and left on others, desperately seeking solutions wherever they can find them and convinced that the three main parties provide few.

Now that the barnacles have been stripped off the Conservative boat, a craft closer to the 2001 and 2005 vintages has been revealed. The seaworthiness of this vessel does not wholly depend on a rightward drift in the political undercurrents. Its sharpness is a virtue in itself. Cameron’s retail offer is much crisper than when he was proclaiming the big society.

Miliband’s retail offer is not as well defined. In January, I reported on his speech to the Fabian Society and concluded that by inches Miliband’s rhetoric transitions from the think-tank seminar to being pub-ready. Yet Ben Mitchell observes that his recent speech to Progress was virtually ignored. If Miliband is in the same pub as everyone else, he is sat at a different table.

The chatter from Nigel Farage’s table is louder – symbolising not only a rejection of all three main parties but a rift on the right that Nadine Dorries now proposes to heal by running as a joint Tory-Ukip candidate. Len McCluskey’s declaration of war on shadow cabinet “Blairites” suggests that Labour is not without its rifts either. And disunited parties tend not to win elections.

Miliband must make himself appear more prime ministerial and sharpen his retail offer, while keeping his party united. These tasks are daunting and would be made more so if events move against him: the economic recovery that Mervyn King proclaims putting wind into Tory sails, as the perception that Labour is the party of the Euro elite takes it out of ours, which it certainly would if it is conflated in the public mind with the view that Labour is also the party most responsible for the immigration that has dramatically changed the country without giving anyone a say over this either.

Such weather would be inclement for Miliband and much to the taste of Cameron, so Miliband should get on with making different weather: embrace an EU referendum, alongside a compelling case for the advantages of the UK remaining in a reformed EU and out of the Euro, as part of an economic argument that spends less time bemoaning too far, too fast and more on articulating a fully-costed, alternative future under Labour.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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2 Responses to “Miliband must make, not accept, the political weather”

  1. uglyfatbloke says:

    Denis Healey admitting that Labour lied about the Scottish economy in the past is n’t going to be very helpful, especially since it effectively confirms that Thatcher, major, Blair and Brown – and of course Darling – all followed that pattern. Healey’s admission (Holyrood Magazine/Sunday Post etc) won’t get much of an airing in England, but it’s a huge matter in Scotland. BBC would have avoided reporting it, but apparently STV are going to run a segment so the Beeb will be forced to do so.

  2. swatantra says:

    Healeys admision is ancient history and has as much relevance to todays Scotland as Quentin Durward or the Spanish Armada.

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