As Labour delegates make their way to Liverpool for their annual conference there must be concern in the party about the latest poll that suggests that voters are unconvinced by Ed Miliband’s ability to lead a future Labour Government.
The poll conducted by YouGov reports that a staggering 41% of voters would be dismayed if Labour formed a Government under Miliband. However, more worrying for the Labour hierarchy is Ed’s apparent inability to connect with the public as a leader. The results show that only 5% perceive him to be a natural leader, a mere 6% believe him to be charismatic, while only 9% see him as decisive.
While those in politics would argue that you should always be wary of polls, the results must be satisfying for Nick Clegg and David Cameron. At a time when the coalition government is hugely unpopular because of its policy of cuts, why is Ed Miliband not making a greater impression on the electorate?
I think that the answer can be found once again in the results of the YouGov poll. Amongst those surveyed 6 out of 10 people said that Labour ‘still had not faced up to the damage that they did to the economy’ and nearly half believe that Labour would plunge the country into even deeper debt if they are re-elected.
These finding are absolutely crucial and highlight the key mistake that Miliband made when he first became leader. Instead of openly and honestly apologising for Labour’s part in creating a huge deficit, he postured and simply criticised the coalition’s programme of cuts without offering any viable alternatives. If he had apologised this would have created a sense in the minds of the British people that he was a new leader with an understanding and acceptance of why Labour became so unpopular with the public. This would have been a great statement of intent for the new Miliband regime, but unfortunately it was a missed opportunity.
Another important factor for his unpopularity is his failure to renew and change the party.
In the poll, 68% of people believe that Labour must make ‘major changes to their policies and beliefs to be fit for Government.’ The problem is that Ed Miliband has yet to stamp his authority on the direction of the party and the public is unsure of what he stands for.
Early in his reign as party leader, Tony Blair moved to abolish Clause Four and quickly moved the party towards the centre ground. While the Conservatives had clearly reached the end of the road as a force by the middle of the 1990s what made New Labour electable was the fact that the public saw a party and leader who had clear direction and had learned from its mistakes in the 1980s. In 2011, Ed Miliband has to do the same thing. He has to decide what direction he wants to take the Labour Party both in terms of organisation and policy. With four years, until the next election no one expects Ed to set out clear and defined policies at this stage, but what he has to do is provide a flavour of the course that he wants to put the party on and communicate this to the public.
While the current polls are disappointing all is not lost for Ed Miliband. While defeat at the 2010 General Election was a bitter blow for Labour, it was not a fatal blow. Unlike the Conservative Party that imploded after their defeat in 1997, the Labour Party has remained largely united.
Furthermore, with economic turmoil in the Eurozone, projections for growth lower than expected and cuts expected to bite in the coming years it is hard to see the unpopularity of the coalition not continuing. This will provide an opportunity for Ed Miliband to perhaps emerge as the voice of the people.
However, there are problems on the horizon. With public sector strikes expected in the winter, Miliband’s leadership of the party will be under increased scrutiny. While 44% of people in the YouGov poll believe that he should oppose the action, it is clear that he will come under pressure from the trade unions as they have a massive influence in the Labour Party. How he handles the situation could define his leadership.
Whatever happens, Ed Miliband has to make urgent strides to reach the consciousness of the voters if he is to survive. History has proven that once the voter has an impression about a politician it is very difficult to change their mind.
The Labour party need only look at the Scottish Parliamentary Election in May to see how important the perception of the leader can be to your chances of election. In the weeks before the campaign, Labour had a lead of up to ten points, however once the campaign started and voters were faced with the choice of the charismatic SNP leader Alex Salmond and the bland Iain Gray they chose Salmond.
This week in Liverpool, Ed Miliband will need to look beyond the conference hall and find a way to communicate with the public if he wants to be seen as a viable alternative to Nick Clegg and David Cameron.