It’s still all about leadership

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.

As if.

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

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14 Responses to “It’s still all about leadership”

  1. bob says:

    Abolishing boom and bust, prudence with a purpose, borrow to invest. Now where have I heard all that cr*p before, oh yes Brown from 1997 and we know where that went, don’t we.

  2. paul barker says:

    More fantasy, Labour List, normally ultra-loyal, have at least admitted that The Tories now have a tiny lead, probably.The slow decline in Labours polling of the last 2 years seem to have accelerated sharply over the new year as voters begin to think about May.
    Is this site still trying to repesent Labour centrists & if so, what are you saying ? I cant make it out.

  3. swatantra says:

    Still time to change the Leader! Australia did it, ditched nerdy Rudd and got Julia Gillard instead, who just about led them to victory, with the support of a couple of Independent Conservatives, just like this new bloke Alexis in Greece. OK, I know that nerdy Rudd got his own back on Julia and managed to lose the election for Labour last year. Tit for Tat doesn’t always worked Kevin.

  4. Madasafish says:

    Leadership means taking unpopular and tough decisions to position you better for the future. And when you become leader, one of the first things you do is change those people who are your senior colleagues but encumbered by the failures of the past.

    You may take a couple of years to gradually get your way: you cannot do everything at once but you ruthlessly clear out those whose past record spells “loser”.

    Two key positions stand out like sore thumbs:

    Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. A man so incompetent he has swung 160 degrees in policy in three years and managed o be wrong on almost every key policy aspect. (Triple dip recession anyone?)

    Shadow Health Secretary: Andy Burnham. A man critcising the Tories for privatising the NHS when the Labour Party did more privatising than the Tories have .. and the man who tried to cover up the Mid Staffs shambles.

    No leadership evident there then.

    At least Neil Kinnock was interesting to watch and listen to.

  5. Michael Numpty who voted for Blair says:

    also ‘education, education, education’ but the most noted effect on the UK was ‘immigration, immigration, immigration’. I note there was a call today for more BME Labour candidates. I see 23/77 Pakistani Labour councillors controlling Birmingham council building madrassas in Pakistan whilst part closing the new library, 50% of the mosques being Deobandi ie hard line and 23 years of child abuse (still not addressed for fear of ‘riots’). Labour needs more minority candidates yes but should stop pandering to this one group even though they deliver votes as a block it is bad for Labour in the long term. Many of the UKIP voters were staunchly working class Labour voters and now they hate Labour even more than the Tories–claims-9897005.html

  6. Fred says:

    What is the point of this article? Which of the following have demonstrated any leadership?

    The Eagles (media disasters)

    None of them. In the confines of the ballot box, the undecided voters will not vote for Miliband, he hasn’t offered them anything other than spin. There is no experience in the PLP, no substance, certainly no policy.

    Have you noticed that Diane Abbot is on telly as often as any of them and she’s not in the shad cab.

    Labour is a zombie party, waiting for an exorcism or to die slowly.

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    @Bob: Yup, we know just where it went. Three successive general election victories. Three. Count ’em.

  8. Bob says:

    Rob marchant: ‘Yup, we know just where it went. Three successive general election victories. Three. Count ‘em.’

    And we can add in that, Blair taking the UK into a war on very doubtful if any justification for Iraq (dodgy dossiers). Underfunding the forces to do the job there and NO after day 1 peace plan for the civil population. 453 dead members of HM forces and thousands injured both physically and mentally Delaying the publication or even implement the start of the Chillcot enquirey.

    The mysterious death of Dr David Kelly after his Common Select Committee and the Hutton enquirey sealing the case transcripts.

    Blair in effect refusing to be interviewed over cash for honours. Labour MPs doing nothing about heritage group gang sexual abuse and rape in the ethnic minority communities, for fear of rocking the community boat (McShane).

    Wholesale privatisation of buildings and facility services of schools and hospitals via PFI to keep expenditure off the Treasury books. The cover ups of appalling NHS services in Mid Staffs, Basildon, East Kent, the on going criminal case at Morcambe Bay. Bullying of NHS to keep quiet Nicholson and Bowyer involved. Remember the ex chief exec of Lincolnshire Gary Walker giving evidence to the Health Select committee stating he had been gagged by a compromise agreement and having to reassured that giving evidence would not affect the agreement.

    Balls since 2010 has been wrong on all the major things in the economy, triple dip for a starter. Advocated light touch regulation of the financial sector as seen on you tube.

    Harman, Dromey and your ex minister Hewitt involved with the NCCL and PIE, more disgusting thing bar none.

    John Prescott implementing Pathfinder strategy and leaving it half undone, leaving in my city areas destroyed, oh don’t forget the M4 bus lane firago. Having victims of the Paddington train crash investigated to see if their complaints were politically motivated.

    Peter Mandleson, resigned twice, once for financial activity that may have had the man in the street prosecuted. He who sent out search parties for uncontrolled immigration to rub the ‘rights’ nose in multiculturalism. Like Balls in favour of light touch bank regulation.

    Last but not least the delightful Jo Moore SPAD to Byers on the day of the bombs, ‘it’s a good day to bury bad news’

    Just a small list of why Labour is doomed to fail as a political party.

  9. Tafia says:

    @Bob: Yup, we know just where it went. Three successive general election victories. Three. Count ‘em.

    By not being Labour but a watered down Thatcherite party and abandoning your core beliefs. So pointless really.

    And anyone supporting Blairite policies will lose Scotland – as is happening with Murphy where things are going from worse to disaster under him.

    Harold Wilson won four with a more left wing agenda.

  10. Bob says:

    Rob Marchant:

    Where is Labour’s leadership on this subject, it involves mainly LABOUR councils. the silence is deafening and disgraceful.

  11. John says:

    Tafia, Wilson won in 1964, because the Cinservatives were tired,he got 12.2million votes to the Conservaties 12million, in 1958 the Tories had got 13.95 million, they hadnt regained Strength in 1966 when he won, ,He win in 1974 with 11.52 and 11.45million votes less than 38% ,Neil Kinnocks lost in 1992 with 11.56million votes, it was labours record,that meant the Tories kept winning elections with 13-14 million votes

  12. Tafia says:

    Bpb, was all over Sky News today along with accusations and suggestions of a council cover-up.

    There’s also more cases about to come to light across Greater Manchester and more again in Birmingham. (all Labour councils and this an election year. Oh dear.)

    Anne Cryer was interviewed – very good, probably had an PC Labourites cringing, but very good.

    As for leadership, I spent 22 years in the infantry. Miliband would make an average Lance Corporal. He has no charisma, no force of character and no panache. He lacks clarity and people would follow him more out of curiosity than anything else. Orderly Room clerk material – nothing else.

  13. Tafia says:

    John, at the end of the day it’s who wins that counts, not how many voted for them. Part and parcel of FPTP and constituencies.

    For example, no Prime Minster has ever had the amount of votes that John Major got (1992 – 14,093,007) – ever. He was out on his arse 5 years later and his party crushed. It’s almost certain that no-one will ever come close to that figure during the remainder of our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean he was the most popular Prime Minister ever.

    Labour will be unable to form a majority government in 2015 because it no longer appeals to what is supposed to be it’s core vote in it’s strongholds such as Scotland. And the reason it doesn’t appeal is because it is now seen a middle-class party run by southerners and not the slightest interested in the things they want – such as social housing for rent (which the tories build more of anyway) and more interested in farming benefit claimants, immigrants, graduates and people with mortgages.

    Why parties end up winning is irrelevant in this context and so is how many voted for them – it’s who wins that counts.

    I doubt very much of either tories or Labour end up with much more than a whisker over 10 million next time out and it will deteriorate further from there on as multi-party politics is here to stay.

  14. uglyfatbloke says:

    With an election just a few months away, does anyone think we’ll see a revisiting of the MPs and lords who got caught stealing on their expenses but who are still in parliament because they paid back some or all of the money? Or, for that matter, the ones who made themselves rich without actually breaking the rules because the rules did n’t penalise wrong-doing? If so, how’s that going to affect the GE? Duck-houses and moat-cleaning come to mind…

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