The Labour leader may not be winning any personal popularity contests, but he could yet be the next Prime Minister, writes Allan Massie
A COMRES poll published this week puts Labour at 33 per cent, the Tories at 27, Ukip at 17, the Liberal Democrats at 8 and the Greens at 7. If repeated at the general election this would apparently give Labour a handsome majority. You may think it odd that a party with a third of the vote should be able to form a majority government. You may think it unfair. But that’s how first-past-the-post works, and when the electorate was asked if it wanted to change this to the Alternative Vote system of (sort of) proportional representation, the answer was no. So, given that it is reckoned that there is a bias towards Labour on account of the present constituency boundaries, and that this bias requires the Conservatives to be six points clear of Labour to win, or even to be the largest party in the Commons, things would at the moment seem to be set fair for Labour and for Ed Miliband to be prime minister.
There are of course several reservations to be made. The first and most obvious one is that things may change between now and the election in May. Will Ukip poll 17 per cent then? Few probably think this likely, but Nigel Farage’s party, despite being out of the news since the European election, may have more staying power than is supposed. Of course, Ukip may be maintaining such a healthy position in the polls simply because it has been out of the news; its candidates and policies haven’t come under much scrutiny since May. Nevertheless, support is apparently holding up for the present; and this is bad news for the Tories. To some extent it is bad news for Labour too since Ukip is apparently attracting traditional Labour voters in the North of England. But it’s probably not doing so in sufficient numbers to do more than reduce Labour majorities in safe seats; not yet anyway. In this respect Ukip’s position may be rather like the SNP’s in Glasgow and west-central Scotland where, over the years, it has bitten deeper and deeper into the Labour vote without winning many seats.
In any case, Ukip is still attracting more Tory than Labour voters, and if it continues to do so David Cameron will probably be a one-term prime minister. Of course the Tories hope that the lost sheep will still find their way back to the fold. This isn’t a vain hope. The more likely a Labour victory seems, the more likely it is that a fair number of natural Tories who now say they will vote Ukip will have second thoughts and say “Better Cameron than Ed Miliband”.
Which brings one to Labour’s problem: the leader, subjected yesterday to a vicious attack by Damian McBride in the Daily Mail. McBride, a practitioner of the dark arts of spin and character assassination in the previous Labour administration. Miliband’s leadership is, according to McBride, “totally dysfunctional”. He “has managed to blend the worst of Blair’s ‘me against the world’ with the worst of Brown’s ‘they’re out to get me’ paranoia”. This is rich, coming from McBride who always used to seem to exhibit this blend himself, and , even apart from offering an unfair picture of both Blair and Brown, is probably pretty much nonsense. Miliband’s own response to the bad press he has been getting actually appears good-humoured, relaxed and self-deprecating. He is under fire but evidently not withering.
Nevertheless, even though some of his policies have struck a chord and his promotion of the idea of “One Nation Labour” has played well, it’s equally clear that a majority of the electorate don’t see him, or don’t see him yet, as the prime minister-in-waiting. Almost half of Labour supporters have doubts about him. It always seemed likely that Labour picked the wrong Miliband, which they did thanks to the trade union vote which went to Ed, while brother David won the support of a majority of MPs and of individual party members in Labour’s electoral college. It is also more than probable that Labour would be far more comfortably ahead in the polls now if Alan Johnson had chosen to contest the leadership election and won it. But this is all now in the past, and it is no use Labour supporters bemoaning it. The party is where it is and must stand or fall with Ed Miliband.
It is very rare for an Opposition to win an election if its leader doesn’t look like a credible prime minister, or even if he isn’t more popular and more highly regarded than the incumbent. Examples of those who fail these tests are numerous: Michael Foot (1983), Neil Kinnock (1987 and 1992), William Hague (2001), Michael Howard (2005). Conversely, in 1964 Harold Wilson seemed more in tune with the modern world than the then prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and Tony Blair in 1997 was clearly preferred to an exhausted John Major. Yet it can be done if the tide is flowing against the government. It was a surprise when Ted Heath beat Wilson in 1970 because Heath hadn’t managed to connect with the public. In 1979 opinion polls showed that Jim Callaghan, the prime minister, was more popular and more trusted than his challenger, Margaret Thatcher, whose leadership of the Opposition had been unconvincing. Nevertheless Callaghan lost, and 1979 may be seen as an election in which it was the governing party rather than its leader which was rejected.
Miliband has this in his favour: that he has probably only two things to do in order to win or at least to emerge as leader of the largest party in the next parliament: first, to ensure that the Labour vote holds firm, second to avoid any gaffes during the election campaign. He should manage both, and I would be surprised if he doesn’t perform well in the leaders’ debates so long as he avoids stridency and speaks in a calm and conversational manner. Apart from this, there may be little he can do himself to affect the result of an election which increasingly looks as if the outcome will depend on the solidity of the Ukip vote. If that collapses he may lose; if Ukip come in at 10 or 12 per cent, then Ed Miliband will be prime minister.