by Rob Marchant
For the last few years, Labour Uncut has been repeating pretty much the same message: the Tories will mainly fight this election on two things: leadership and the economy.
They haven’t disappointed. So far, they seem to have been talking about little else.
Thing is, at this point the argument over the economy is a difficult one. To the politically-attuned, the Tories may just be perceived – even among their own supporters – as having called their last Budget badly and overdone austerity. But among ordinary folk, the reality is that Labour is still not trusted on the economy and that this would tend to trump unease with the Tories.
The logic is not exactly complex: “Labour will borrow more” is the Tory attack line. Labour’s strategy is to reply with the economically correct, and yet politically inept, response that we will leave the door open to borrow, but only to invest.
As if the average voter is likely to distinguish between leaving the door open and doing, or between capital and expense accounting in their feelings about the two main parties.
No, it is largely too late to try to unscramble that particular omelette. Our economic polling is what it is.
So we turn from economics to leadership. Some things here, too, we can no longer do anything about. It is too late to play the statesman-in-waiting, or gain the support of those world leaders who are both politically like-minded and credible (a category for which François Hollande would clearly struggle to qualify).
Now, foreign policy does not win or lose elections. But it can certainly have far-reaching, secondary impacts, for which reason we should not dismiss it, either.
For example, flashback to 2012: the Syria vote in Parliament. Although it may well come to be remembered, as Nick Cohen commented at the time, as “a low and mean moment in our history” – where a different outcome could easily have helped save hundreds of thousands of civilian lives – we would not expect the Syria vote to have a direct impact on many voters in our general election. Most probably didn’t even notice it. Fair enough.
But think again. Who would have predicted that, when Miliband finally got to meet Obama last year in the famous “brush-by”, he would have reportedly had to spend a good part of the meeting explaining why he had led the charge against Obama’s proposed intervention – all on one of the very few occasions when the president actually wanted to do so? And, let’s face it, if you can “out-non-intervene” perhaps the most reluctant interventionist in post-war presidential history, that’s quite an achievement in itself. If not a very inspiring one.
Harsh reality: probably the principal thing which Obama knows and remembers about Miliband is that, in one of those rare historical conjunctions when America looked to its old ally for support, this guy was blocking the way.
So, it could hardly have been much of a surprise to Labour’s upper echelons when Obama, bypassing the convention of non-interference in foreign elections, openly praised his “friend” David Cameron in the middle of an election campaign. One can imagine just how keen Obama must be to have Miliband in Downing Street.
This is a clear political payback, but a grown-up leadership team needs to take this on the chin. Such is the currency of politics.
What we do not need to do, especially in an election where leadership – or its lack – may well be the deciding factor, is to compound this by further, unforced errors.
In this case, to allow the party’s deputy leader onto LBC radio, to transmit a message of “It’s so unfair! That Obama doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” (I paraphrase slightly).
Not only does that kind of action self-evidently make for even icier relations with the leader of the free world, in the happy event that one might scrape into power; but the petulance and rank cluelessness of the response surely helps to make that same event just that little bit less likely to happen.
What was she thinking?
It is too late to make big improvement in the public’s perceptions of leadership and, thankfully, Labour is still in front in the polls for voting intention. Just.
But there is a clear risk. It is the risk that, as the days are counted down to the 7th of May, Labour’s awful leadership polling will start to exert a drag effect on Labour’s overall polling, as people start to realise that a vote for a party also contributes to the de facto selection of a prime minister.
In the last 100 days running up to the 1992 election, Labour’s poll lead was flip-flopping from slightly positive to slightly negative in a very similar way to today. That election, too, proved impossible to call. But as the Mail has somewhat gleefully pointed out, Milliband’s approval ratings six months out from the election (-38%) were very much worse than Kinnock’s (-8% and, for our younger readers, he lost).
In such an environment, we cannot realistically suppose that the British public will suddenly declare their great love for Ed Miliband. It won’t happen. Grudging acceptance, perhaps.
Of the two big issues, then, Labour’s economic polling cannot really be fixed at this point. But we really, really need to avoid making unforced errors in the area of leadership. Especially with things balanced on a knife-edge and the Tories determined to fight a relentlessly negative, personal campaign against the leader, just as they did with Kinnock two decades earlier.
Miliband may yet have made a strategic error in agreeing to take part in a TV debate where the winner might be Nigel Farage (or Alex Salmond, or even Nick Clegg; he did it once before, after all). We shall see.
But there must be no slip-ups. Superficial though these things may seem to high-falutin’ political types, there must be no “Mrs Duffys”. No “bacon sandwich moments”.
And, as one of the party’s former leaders might have put it, a period of silence on the part of the Deputy Leader would be welcome.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left