Rosettes are being dusted off, canvassing phone lists are being updated, and middle aged men are being photographed pointing at potholes for leaflets…yes there’s an election just around the corner. So what’s wrong with Ed Miliband? If the Tories are supposed to be as loathed as the Labour faithful would have us believe, why isn’t the Leader of the Opposition reaping the benefits?
Only last year a poll by Ipsos Mori found that only 13% of respondentS agreed that Ed Miliband was ready to be Prime Minister. This was the lowest proportion to back the leader of the Opposition as ready for premiership that the pollsters had ever recorded, going all the way back to 1994. Even among Labour members, usually loyal to fault, dissatisfaction was at 58%, and Labour candidates are even choosing not have their leader’s image on their campaign literature.
To be sure, Cameron isn’t exactly being carried aloft through the streets by adoring crowds, but then that’s not what Tories hope for or expect. Tories, by and large, have come to accept being seen as aloof, affluent and a bit out of touch. People expect Tories to be a little cold and callous, they don’t tend to disappoint. For Labour it’s different. Labour crave to been seen as the party of the common man, the average Joe. They’re meant to be the party that understands working class families and can relate to their worries and concerns in a way that baby-eating Tory toffs can’t. And this is at least part of the reason Ed Miliband struggles, because with all the will in the world the millionaire son of a Marxist intellectual who’s never had a job outside of politics is never really going to connect the average voter. And it’s not even as if he’s especially good at faking it. Whether it be the ‘Blackbusters’ tweet, countless Awkward Ed moments, or ‘that’ bacon sandwich, Ed Miliband epitomises that guys who is trying too hard to be your friend. To use a school analogy, Ed Miliband looks, sounds, and feels like the awkward geography supply teacher who tries to be one of the lads.
Poor old Ed isn’t alone in this of course. Plenty of professional politicians try and fail to seem in touch with his or her constituent, but it matters far more for Ed. As I’ve discussed previously, the perception of party leaders is more important than ever before, a trend that’ll only increase as leadership debates become a permanent fixture in elections. Furthermore, the main three parties are having to deal with phenomenon that historically only effected fringe parties, namely the way in which the image of the leader and the image of the party as a whole are intrinsically linked. Nigel Farage is UKIP, Natalie Bennet is the Green Party (just as Caroline Lucas was before her), and Alex Salmond and Nick Griffin were the SNP and BNP respectively. Increasingly, people will see Labour through the prism of Ed Miliband.
To a large extent Labour only have themselves to blame. It’s worth remembering that Labour members themselves didn’t even want Ed Miliband, opting instead for the more popular and charismatic of the brothers, but Labour’s unique method of selecting its leader meant the view of actual party members are but one of a host of determining entities. Secondly, even among those in Labour who knew they’d landed themselves with a dud either realised too late or were paralysed by inertia. If the Tories are too quick to turn on an underperforming leader, Labour are painfully slow, and this has been no exception. And it’s easy to find excuses to cling on; you can’t oust a leader too soon, as they haven’t had time to settle in and find their feet, but leave it too long and you’re too close to the next General Election to risk the disruption.
The final part of the problem is Labour itself. One gets the impression that throughout this parliament Labour have been trying to find their place in a political landscape the no longer matches the comfortable norms they’ve been used too. Austerity, if you can call overspending by £400 million a day austerity, hasn’t caused the popular backlash Labour had hoped, as most people seem to have accepted, grudgingly, that previous levels of government spending were unsustainable. By taking too long to acknowledge this simple truth, Labour seriously delayed clawing back the economic credibility vital to electoral success. Labour have allowed themselves to be blindsided by UKIP in the urban north of England and are only now starting to make noises about immigration and defence, two UKIP totems. Labour face catastrophe in Scotland in May, and after the last Local Elections, don’t control a single county council south of Leeds. Ed Miliband’s cerebral and almost philosophical approach allowed Labour to coast and eventually drift, with only buzz words and gimmicks to guide it. And even these caused more harm than good; Predistribution and One Nation are grist to the mill of politics students and debate teams, but mean nothing to people outside of politics and only fuel the perception the the Labour leader is just as out of touch as the Tory’s Public School cadres.
Next to a improving economy, Ed Miliband remains the Conservative’s best electoral asset.