Ed Miliband: Lines of attack
Ed Miliband has not had a good start to the year. He returned to the dispatch box for PMQs last Wednesday looking to put the previous year behind him. His supporters may well point to his successes, such as fathering the Oxford Dictionary Word Of The Year, but 2011 was definitely not the year of the Ed (Miliband, that is). Some say that PMQs is unimportant, and in many ways it is. When it comes to party morale though, it can play a significant role. Miliband will have stepped up to the dispatch box with memories of the last time he was there; when David Cameron played conductor to government benches prompting them into a raucous outburst as he put Miliband in his place and summed up the year for the Labour leader.
Despite the policy disasters of all things Coalition, including the central policy and the one it all hinges on, the economy, Conservative MPs remain in good spirits. Happy with their leader, happy with the Party’s standing in the polls and even more happy about the Leader of the Opposition. Ed Miliband, after receiving his dressing down with half the house laughing at him and three quarters of the press mocking him in the last PMQs of 2011, will have gone home for Christmas with one family member or another and been in different spirits. There should have been a lot of reflection, self reflection, questions asked, performances assessed and strategies mapped out. It seems though that Miliband has picked up where he left off; ridiculed on the Today programme, ignored at his “not a relaunch” set-piece event, dismissed at PMQs last week and now attacked by his union bosses. Labour have also managed to confuse voters and alienate supporters by conceding that they would not reverse coalition cuts. Miliband needs a radical change in his approach. He needs to change what he’s doing, and how he’s doing it.
Ed Miliband essentially has two main problems. Primarily, he has a communication problem. Many politically minded people still don’t know what the Labour leader stands for or where the Labour Party stands on many key issues. The average voter is likely to be even more baffled. When you speak to his supporters though, or those who have been paying very, very close attention to him, they are able to narrate the messages and convictions of Ed Miliband. If you ever heard them, they would sound familiar. But for the wrong reasons.
Miliband’s supporters are quick to point out that David Cameron has followed his lead on numerous occasions, such as his response to the phone hacking scandal, the practice of energy companies, the “squeezed middle” and the latest instalment of political buzzwords – “crony capitalism”. His messages are constantly imitated by the Coalition, but it is only when the Coalition start speaking about them that people start to listen. Private opinion-poll findings have shown that voters respond positively when certain messages from politicians, labelled as anonymous, are presented to them. When asked who they think the messages are from, the majority say David Cameron. In fact, they are from Ed Miliband.
Miliband has also shown that he has a sound analysis of where the Labour Party went wrong in recent years, the need to build a new economy and on the key issues facing our country. His analysis is so sound that it has been stolen from him. Opposition leaders used to fear announcing a policy ahead of a general election in case they got stolen by the Government. Opposition leaders used to therefore spend years positioning themselves in broad terms and trying to appeal to the electorate by talking about their grand ideas. Closer to the time of an election, they would then look to build upon these ideas by reinforcing them with detailed policy. Miliband doesn’t have this luxury as he can’t even get beyond the “ideas phase” without them being stolen by the Tories. When you get to the point where you are telling people what they want to hear but they still don’t want to listen to you, you are in trouble. That’s where Ed Miliband is at the moment.
The fear is that Miliband has underestimated the size of his task, or overestimated his ability to command the spotlight in political discourse. Just because you are speaking, it doesn’t mean people are listening. Connecting with the public is a much more nuanced affair. One which requires positioning, posturing, rhetoric and dare I say it, spin. These are things that Peter Mandelson and later New Labour recognised after spending years in the political wilderness unable to communicate with the public. When Ed Miliband took over as leader of the Labour Party, he was determined to put an end to New Labour. He was right to want to move on from it. The New Labour brand had turned sour after years of private turned public feuds between Brownites and Blairites. There was also a perception that they had become the party of welfare handouts and mass immigration, and a light-touch attitude shown towards regulating the financial services industry had blown up in their face; destroying the foundations of their economic vision. By banishing the machinery of New Labour though, Miliband has rid himself of the ability to get his message across to the public too.
Miliband’s keenness to rid himself of New Labour was understandable, but he should have been wary of throwing the baby out with the bath water. As he should have known, there were some aspects of New Labour that were worth keeping – such as the ability to appeal to large constituencies of people and win elections. If Cameron is successful in claiming the ground that Miliband has shown him the way to, the Labour leader will have learnt the hard way that New Labour were doing something right after all. In order to get the public to listen to him, he must address this issue and learn to speak to the public.
His second problem is that he is losing the argument on the economy. He must start talking about the economy much more. He must start talking about it so much that it gets to the point where people start to think he is obsessed by it. In difficult times, the only issue that matters is the economy. With members of the coalition on every media outlet, referencing borrowing figures and quoting metaphors at every available opportunity, austerity has taken over almost every political debate. Every policy is spoken about in the context of the Coalition’s austerity measures. Even the ones that are not, such as High Speed Rail 2, are criticised for not falling in line with the Coalition’s austerity measures. This government is being defined by its economic policy, in one way or another. Crucially, they also remain in control of the economic dialogue with the public. This shouldn’t be the case.
By his own admission, George Osborne’s economic plan has failed. Miliband however, has the tendency to let the coalition seize the narrative on the economy. Instead of trying to prevent the Tories blaming Labour for the state of the country’s finances in 2010, he was involved in the Labour leadership election. He has no excuse however for allowing Osborne to shift the goalposts when it comes to the timescale set out in his plans to eliminate the deficit. By blaming Labour for the economic situation the country is presently in, and sweeping their own failures under the carpet, the Tories have managed to present the economy as their biggest strength. The polls have consistently demonstrated this, with far more voters trusting the Tories with the economy than those who trust Labour. In actual fact, the state of the economy is the Coalition’s biggest weakness. With countless downward revisions on growth, all deficit targets missed and higher than expected borrowing costs, the Tories have actually failed in every single way possible when it comes to their economic plan. Miliband however, seems to be passing the buck when it comes to exploiting this.
Which brings us back to PMQs. Last year, Miliband asked his questions to the Prime Minister on various subjects ranging from the NHS to Ken Clarke. Miliband revisited the dispatch box this week, and in turn revisited the issue of the economy. Cameron may have got the better of him when it came to the theatre of their match-up, but he was visibly under pressure when it came to the facts. When it comes to the 2015 election, only one subject will matter. The economy. Even when dismal economic figures were released in 2011, Miliband backed away from the fight. Sometimes this was for reasons incredibly short-term in their thinking; such as being scared of what quotes Cameron would use from whichever book was being released that week. This is not the way to put a government under pressure about such a seismic issue. Every single week at PMQs, Ed Miliband should be asking about the economy. Without fail. Even when there is a huge media storm about some other issue, be it the NHS or rape sentences, Miliband should still be asking about the economy. Even when there has been a scandal in government ranks, Miliband should still be asking about the economy. Even if the coalition was on the verge of splitting, Miliband should still be asking about the economy. When faced with the facts, this is where the Government’s true weakness lies. The fact that Miliband will still be talking about the economy when nobody else is will make his constant attacks on the government even more of a big deal.
The thing about media storms is, they pass. The economy is here to stay. If the Tories fail with every other policy other than the economy, Labour will not win the 2015 election. Cameron, so far, has dealt with economic disappointments by blaming the Labour Party for “the mess that we’re in”. Judging by his performance at PMQs this week, this strategy has not changed. It is one that can only last for so long. If Cameron was forced, every week, to answer questions on the economy and every week he chose to blame Labour for the current economic situation, the public would soon grow tired of him and his excuses. He would be forced into providing a different defence for his economic failures. Not only would this take the spotlight off Labour and their record, but it would shift the economic debate entirely.
In order to do this though, Miliband must exhaust Cameron of the “it’s all Labour’s fault” excuse. Voters have short memories, and the Tories will be determined to blame Labour for the state of the economy for as long as possible. Instead of trying to limit them on the amount of blame they put on Labour, Miliband must instead limit how long they blame Labour for. This will not happen until he seizes the initiative on this matter and makes the public sick of hearing Cameron blame Labour for the current economic situation. Only then will they be ready to listen to Ed Miliband and the Labour Party on the economy.
Posted on January 19, 2012, in Labour Party, Looking Forward, Prime Minister’s Question Time and tagged david cameron, economy, Ed miliband, labour party, New Labour, pmqs. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.