Comment: Leaders to blame for poor party prospects

ED Miliband and David Cameron are equally problematic to their natural supporters, insists Brian Monteith

Nicola Sturgeon impressed during the seven leaders debate but she has a freedom to be more outspoken with her views than Ed Miliband. Picture: Getty
Nicola Sturgeon impressed during the seven leaders debate but she has a freedom to be more outspoken with her views than Ed Miliband. Picture: Getty

If there is one thing that marks out this general election campaign it is that of the two main parties able to form a government, both have leaders many of their supporters are unhappy with.

Although David Cameron does consistently well in pollsters’ popularity rankings – usually being ahead of Ed Miliband, even in Scotland – there are many past and potential Tory supporters who will now vote UKIP because of him. The strange thing about Cameron is that so many of his errors have been unforced, he has tripped himself up on a variety of issues and on each occasion he has driven supporters away.

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Likewise, such has been the struggle of Ed Miliband to shrug-off his policy-wonk geekishness so ordinary people feel he understands them, that many past and potential Labour voters will vote for other parties. Miliband’s difficulty in eating a bacon butty should count for nothing, the reason it is often referred to is because his awkwardness in social settings sums up what people feel about his awkwardness in politics.

Conservative and Labour supporters who do not recognise their leaders present a variety of problems as well as advantages must surely be in denial. I have no doubt that were Labour to have a more charismatic leader who showed a better grasp of economics and a common touch there would be no talk of coalition deals or comfort and supply arrangements from minority parties; Labour would have the election in the bag.

All but the most partisan of Labour supporters are underwhelmed by the prospect of Miliband becoming the next Prime Minister. That there is a strong undercurrent of disappointment was revealed by the admiration Nicola Sturgeon won across England after her performance in the seven leaders’ debate ten days ago. Here was a socialist leader who said what many on the left of English politics wanted to hear – and have not been getting from Miliband or his team. True, Sturgeon had the advantage that she and her candidates for Westminster are not standing in any constituencies outside Scotland and she could take more outspoken positions than Miliband feels able to. Nevertheless, we can also see that these same robust positions on Trident, “austerity” and welfare cuts, for instance, have not cost the SNP support in Scotland. Indeed, it can be argued that they are part of the reason so many Labour supporters have switched to the SNP.

It is also the case that Sturgeon could advocate fantasy economics that can sound superficially appealing knowing they have no prospect in seeing the light of day. Both she and Miliband know (probably because Ed Balls has told him) that the slightest prospect of such policies being delivered by Westminster would cause a run on the markets and see the pound sterling in serious trouble.

“How we could do with a Nicola Sturgeon in England”, or similar, was the cry from many after that debate, but it was wishful thinking, a luxury. After losing four general elections in a row to Thatcher and Major, the Labour Party knows the limits of what it can now offer and has decided to remain at the centre of British politics – wherever that might be at any given time.

Those who are genuinely disbelieving of Labour’s attempt to maintain a broad movement of the left embrace idealist parties more akin to religious cults, such as Trotskyist and Marxist groups, or now the Green Party that would have us all shivering in the cold and dark and pricing ourselves out of jobs while the developing world burns coal and oil.

The danger for Miliband is not only the amount of support he has lost in Scotland but that if he does get into power he will be starting from such a low base of public appeal that any wrong steps will make his government hugely unpopular and his tenure very short.

The problem for the Conservatives is very similar. As a leader of his party for nearly ten years David Cameron must take a great deal of responsibility for helping the rise of UKIP, which back in 2005 was known mainly as a quaint fringe grouping. Be it his equivocation on Europe and unwillingness to hold a retrospective referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, his unnecessarily divisive approach to gay marriage, his absurd targets on immigration that have not been met (and never could be) and his repeated interventions in lifestyle choices – Cameron has not behaved like a Conservative leader and the haemorrhaging of voters, members, and worst of all – two MPs – is down to him.

Many natural Conservatives, while not agreeing with everything UKIP or its leader says, find a great deal more reassurance from Nigel Farage as someone who is willing to take on the vested interests of the public sector and large corporations. A politically correct Conservative is a contradiction in terms and Farage’s pint drinking cigarette smoking works as his shorthand for normality. Meanwhile Tories go around wearing open neck business shirts in a vain effort to relate to the punters.

That Cameron is not a Conservative was evidenced again this past week when he came out with the appalling idea of a five-year price freeze on rail fares. As a politician’s bribe it was cunning – just like Miliband’s similar promise on freezing energy prices – but it is just as economically stupid (as well as hypocritical) and the antithesis of what a Tory should be doing. More competition, more deregulation and lower energy costs are what will drive down prices – not Canute-like edicts from a Prime Minister.

Thatcher, Joseph, Tebbit and Parkinson all understood that government should get out of running businesses and made that happen. David Cameron shoving his party into reverse will only encourage more UKIP voters to think they are right.

It is behaviour like that which leaves me feeling Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservative Party – with its open commitment to personal tax cuts – is now more attractive than David Cameron’s imposter of a party that believes it should meddle in so many aspects of our lives.

Miliband or Cameron? At least we should be rid of one of them within a couple of months.