Ed Miliband’s numbers are bad – so bad that apparently anyone presenting on polling to the shadow cabinet isn’t allowed to talk about them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s doing a bad job as Labour leader. Nor does it mean his party can’t win a general election. Indeed, the fact that it’s still in with a reasonable chance suggests that Miliband has actually done almost everything a politician in his position can do in order to win back power.
The leader of the opposition is currently entitled to a salary of £132,387. A nice little earner, some would say, and certainly enough to put the post’s occupant beyond the fabled “squeezed middle”. It’s not enough, however, to offset its reputation as one of the most difficult jobs in British politics. But difficult is not impossible. And the job description is pretty clear. So how does Ed Miliband measure up?
1. Showing your party has changed
This involves both policies and people. Miliband has been lucky in that he’s not, like Neil Kinnock, weighed down with radical, electorally unpopular commitments he can’t junk quickly. Labour’s reputation for profligacy, especially on welfare, remains a problem, if not necessarily an unprecedented or insuperable one. But Miliband is trying hard to get some distance between the Blair/Brown era and his own regime, in particular on immigration – a touchy subject that recent psephological research suggests may have been as important as the economy in losing Labour votes last time round. And although some of Labour’s big beasts are seemingly untouchable, its leader has won (and now exercised) the right to bring in fresh faces of his own choosing, including the young guns who are making big speeches this week fleshing out Labour’s new offer.
2. Holding your party together and maintaining it as a fighting force
All the above has been achieved without letting the inevitable internal arguments generated attract the attention of the vast majority of voters who don’t follow politics 24/7. Given what’s happened to Labour when it’s been chucked out of office before, this is no mean achievement. Of course, this could all change if the bad blood already created by Miliband’s decision to recast his party’s relationship with the trade unions ends up on the carpet, but – partly because both sides seem to have decided that discretion is the better part of valour – this currently looks unlikely. Certainly, Tory strategists would be unwise to bank on the union organisers who contribute so much to Labour’s electioneering sitting this one out. Labour also has a party membership which is almost certainly bigger, more energetic and in better heart than the Conservatives’, partly because Miliband has told them enough (but arguably not too much) of what they want to hear.
3. Setting the agenda, or at least putting the government off its stroke
The party (or parties) in power have a massive advantage in this respect: the media is far more interested in them and their legislation than in the opposition. But Miliband, despite having the odd shocker at prime minister’s questions, has proved capable of making Cameron squirm and the government think again, most obviously on press regulation, on bankers’ bonuses, on gas and electricity prices, on the minimum wage, on payday lending and on military action against Syria. And his now unrelenting focus on the cost of living may still do something to blunt the electoral impact of economic recovery, particularly if he can persuade people that its fruits are going not to them but to the kind of people who helped get us into this mess in the first place. After all, a little populism can go a long way – for the left as well as the right.
4. Looking like you’re in touch with the concerns of ordinary people
The extent to which people take account of party leaders when casting their ballot is hotly debated by psephologists and pollsters. So, too, is which characteristics count most. However, recent research suggests that, while looking like you can be trusted and that you know what you’re doing is important, being seen to be “in touch” may be even more important, particularly if your rival isn’t. The fact, then, that this is where Miliband (perhaps simply because of who he is rather than anything he’s actually done) beats Cameron, may not be quite as irrelevant as many assume.
Whether what he’s done (or what he is) will eventually take Miliband all the way to No 10 is anyone’s guess. But let’s not write him, or his chances, off just yet.