Is the party genuinely in a tailspin? Or are current reports of internal strife the confection of a largely right wing media hellbent on undermining earnest Ed because they object to his mildly social democratic policy platform?
Is there any material difference between those two situations in terms of the likely impact upon Miliband’s abysmal poll ratings and the party’s electoral prospects?
The question facing the strategists is, I guess, what can be done. Or, perhaps more pertinently, can anything be done? James Forsyth in the Spectator, for example, notes that:
what is alarming for Labour is that it is not obvious how they pull out of this downward spiral. Opposition parties rarely put on votes in the last few months of a parliament and Miliband has already fired several of his best policy shots.
Forsyth, and other commentators, note that Miliband’s characteristic response to bad press is to make a speech. But it was a poorly executed speech that triggered this latest malaise, so that isn’t perhaps the failsafe strategy it once was. And it may be that another speech isn’t really what’s needed.
It feels like the Labour party need to try something different. But what?
The big choice is clearly whether that something involves Miliband or not.
There is speculation today about backbench rumblings of discontent; of a disillusioned Shadow Cabinet resigned to defeat. There are hints of moves to usher Miliband towards the exit. This may all be mischief making. But, assuming that it’s not, the strategy raises three principal questions.
First, would the very act of removing Miliband negatively impact upon Labour’s chances? It reinforces views of Labour as factional, fractious and fratricidal: not a serious party of government.
Second, could a new leader – any new leader – do much about Labour’s fortunes over the relative short period before the election?
Third, are there particular individuals who could make a positive difference to Labour’s chances if they moved into the Leader’s role pretty sharpish?
There is enthusiasm in some quarters for the return of Alan Johnson. I will admit that I admire Johnson greatly as a media performer. There is almost no one in politics who can deliver today’s lines to take so convincingly: it is so effortless that for a moment you almost believe that he means it. But, for me, he only just ranked among the heavyweights in the last Labour government. If he’s Labour’s rescue plan then I’ve a feeling they are very short of options. And all this assumes he’s interested in getting up from Andrew Neil’s sofa.
It’s also a strategy that feels very much like looking to the past not the future. So I’m not convinced it will hugely impress the voters.
Even if Miliband weren’t defenestrated then it would be possible for the election campaign to be more broad-based. Labour could let others get out there more often, make the case and take some flak.
The Liberal Democrats did something a little similar, on a smaller scale, for the elections back in the Spring – Nick Clegg hardly featured on the campaign material in quite a lot of areas because reminding voters of his existence was felt to be more of a hindrance than a help. Mind you, that didn’t go so well.
The broader-based strategy requires a good sense of team work and togetherness in the Shadow Cabinet. Miliband will have had to get the rest of the Shadow Cabinet on board with his vision. Or at least get to the point where they are willing to work with it. For the strategy to make much of a difference it would require that the other members of the Shadow Cabinet are more convincing, engaging and authentic than Miliband himself.
With one or two honourable exceptions, I’m not seeing it, if I’m honest.
Also, the strategy of sidelining Miliband as the public face of Labour avoids the problem rather than addressing it. It does nothing to convince the electorate that he’s prime ministerial material. If anything it does the opposite. It looks like he’s running scared.
The alternative is that Miliband stays in place and Labour comes up with new ways to get the message across. I’m not even 100% sure what the message is. So that’d be QED then.
It feels to me like at the moment Labour lack a positive, overarching vision: a relatively simple narrative about what difference voting Labour would make. It needs to be simple but it needs to be credible. And most of all it needs to connect. It needs to descend more effectively from the realms of political wonkery to connect with the sorts of things that people are concerned about. The challenge is to do so in a way that will resonate with those who are seriously contemplating voting Green as well as those who have moved across from the Liberal Democrats – if we take those labels as crude indicators of left and right. And connecting needs more than anecdotes. It needs more than photo-opportunities and gladhanding.
Labour desperately need to demonstrate a greater sense of empathy with the lives of those facing challenges and disadvantage. I don’t mean that they do not empathise at present. But if they do then that doesn’t come across well. Voters need to feel the party is genuinely in touch. But at the same time competent enough to look after Britain’s interests in the maelstrom of the global economy.
The question is whether there is any chance of Miliband achieving this. I’m not sure I’ve come across anyone, even loyalists, who think of him in those terms. They say that he’s smart, genuine, and has a vision, even if he isn’t great at bringing it to life. But he doesn’t have much charisma and he isn’t a populist.
I guess the biggest question of all is whether it is too late. Politicians are used to criticism. It comes with the territory. But the criticism of Miliband has taken on a different quality. It is perhaps mixed with a hint of pity.
The hashtag #SaveEd is an interesting example. While I think one or two people may have tweeted to it with genuinely positive messages for Miliband, most are right wingers tweeting to it satirically: the message is #SaveEd because he is so hopeless he is one of the Tories’ greatest assets. Of course, this comes not long after the whole series of photoshopped pictures of Miliband choking on a bacon sandwich in various locations. The problem for Miliband is that criticism may well have transcended the usual bounds. As James Forsyth notes, there is a worry that:
criticism of him has gone from being a political thing to a cultural meme.
If people are feeling sorry for him or are simply making fun of him because he’s perceived as hapless and hopeless then the game may well be up.
Image: Plashing Vole via flickr.com under Creative Commons.