How do you solve a problem like Ed Miliband? © Tim Goode/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The trouble with Labour leader Ed Miliband

How can the Labour leader revive his fortunes?
June 18, 2014

"Despite having been a Cabinet minister, Miliband gives too many voters the impression that he is a rookie debater, not a potential national leader." © Tim Goode/PA Wire/Press Association Images

He is strong. He understands voters’ problems. He knows how the economy ticks, and how to make it tick faster. He would fight for Britain’s interests and stand firm in a crisis. He keeps his promises. He is the ideal candidate for Prime Minister.

Sadly for Ed Miliband, few voters think he fits the bill. Almost four years into his leadership of the Labour Party, and with just 10 months to go until next year’s election, Miliband has yet to persuade the electorate that he has the personal qualities needed to lead Britain. As a result, Labour is only narrowly ahead of the Conservatives, instead of enjoying the double-digit lead that oppositions generally need at this stage in the political cycle if they are to return to power.

It’s not just what the polls have been showing. Recent elections tell the same story of Labour’s electoral vulnerability: they led the Tories by just 1 to 2 per cent in the local and European elections, despite the Tories shedding votes to Ukip that are likely to return home next May; and they saw a fall in their vote in Newark—the kind of by-election where Labour performed much more strongly when Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock were opposition leaders.

What has gone wrong? YouGov’s regular tracker questions show how Miliband’s attempts to win voters over have failed. Fresh research for Prospect helps to explain his failure—and suggest what he must do to revive his fortunes.

Back in September 2010, a few days after Miliband defeated his brother in the battle to lead Labour, YouGov asked people which of the three main party leaders would make the best Prime Minister. David Cameron, on 40 per cent, was well ahead of Miliband on 25 per cent and Clegg on 8 per cent. At that stage, Miliband was not well known to the wider public. His hope was that voters would warm to him as they got to know him.

It hasn’t happened. Cameron’s figure remained at 38 per cent, plus or minus three points, until after the “omnishambles” budget in 2010. It then slipped, and has generally been in the low-to-mid 30s since. But Miliband has not benefited at all. His rating has seldom climbed above that initial 25 per cent and is currently slightly below that level.

Did Labour choose the wrong brother, as many people argue? We tested this by repeating the best Prime Minister question, but substituting David for Ed. The result is startling. David Miliband scores 35 per cent, 12 points more than Ed, while Cameron tumbles 10 points to 23 per cent.

Would a David Miliband-led Labour Party be heading for victory next year, rather than the close contest that seems likely? Very possibly, but we can’t be sure. Voters’ judgements about Ed are based on his performance; their views about David are based on a hypothesis. Had he won back in 2010, he would have had to grapple with many of the same problems as Ed: reviving Labour’s reputation for economic competence, navigating the tricky politics of recession and recovery, and holding together a Labour Party that has historically been fractious after losing power. We can’t be certain how well he would have done. (It’s worth remembering that David, a committed advocate of New Labour, might have provoked more internal divisions than Ed).

The real point is that this finding indicates how disappointed many voters are in Ed’s performance. Millions remain unconvinced by the coalition’s record and would like to back a Labour leader, but don’t think Ed is a match for Cameron.

Why not? We can rule out one theory, which the Conservatives have advanced from time to time: that “Red Ed” is too left-wing for the electorate. If anything, voters—including many Conservatives—are often keener than Miliband on left-wing measures, such as nationalising the railways, curbing bankers’ pay and blocking foreign takeovers of British companies.

Miliband’s problem is more personal. By more than four-to-one, voters regard him as weak rather than strong; by three to one they say he is simply not up to the job of Prime Minister. On both measures, Cameron scores more positive than negative responses.

Explore the data: Cameron v Miliband



A third comparison of the two men is arguably even more troubling. We asked people whether they thought the Prime Minister and opposition leader were “in touch or out of touch with the concerns of people like you.” This is where one might expect Miliband to do well and Cameron badly. That’s half right: only 20 per cent think the Prime Minister is in touch. But Miliband’s figure is only slightly higher: 25 per cent. Tory attacks on Miliband’s ideology have failed, but his opponents in politics and the media have struck home with comments that his family, upbringing, education and career have been far removed from the experiences of normal folk.

These perceived personal deficiencies are worsened by a real political drawback—not ideological fervour but economic incompetence. We tested two criticisms that are often levelled at him:

• “He hasn’t learned the lessons from the mistakes made managing the government’s finances when Labour was in government.” Agree 52 per cent; disagree 26 per cent; don’t know 23 per cent.

• “He doesn’t really understand how well-run businesses help Britain’s economy to grow.” Agree 46 per cent; disagree 27 per cent; don’t know 28 per cent.

These are bad figures, but they do contain one glimmer of hope. Many people have yet to make up their mind on these points. This is because millions of voters pay close attention to politics only at election time. In principle, Miliband will have the chance over the next 10 months to win over such people—although, of course, the Conservatives will be trying equally hard to persuade them that Labour’s leader cannot be trusted with the nation’s finances.

For the moment, the Tories remain ahead. We have repeated a question we first asked three years ago, shortly after Ed Balls succeeded Alan Johnson as Labour’s Shadow Chancellor. Who do we trust more to run Britain’s economy: David Cameron and George Osborne, or Ed Miliband and Ed Balls? The Conservative pair outscore the Labour pair 36-25 per cent, with 39 per cent don’t knows. These are the lowest figures we have recorded for Miliband and Balls—and the highest number of “don’t knows.” Again, there is a chance over the next 10 months to coax uncertain voters off the fence, albeit after three years of making no progress. On the other hand, the Tories will be able to trumpet continuing recovery to protect their lead.

If Miliband can neutralise the Tories’ advantage on the economy, then he may be able to shift another indicator that is causing him problems. From time to time over the past 10 years we have asked people to imagine that the opposition came to power and its leader became Prime Minister. Would they be delighted, dismayed or not mind? We have always found that far more people say “dismayed” than “delighted,” whether they were asked about Michael Howard, Cameron or Miliband. Just 18 per cent would be delighted by a Miliband victory. Even if we count “wouldn’t mind” as a cautiously positive view, then we find that Labour today is still in negative territory (44 per cent dismayed, 41 per cent delighted or wouldn’t mind). This contrasts with the Conservatives shortly before the 2010 general election (41 per cent negative, 48 per cent positive) and the 2005 election (positives and negatives both 44 per cent). Even Labour voters have only limited enthusiasm, with just over half, 57 per cent saying they would be delighted. Plainly, Miliband must both fire the passions of Labour supporters, and address the fears of those people who would benefit from a change of government but are not currently inclined to vote for one.

One big reason for this lack of enthusiasm is a widespread fear that a Miliband government would fail to solve Britain’s big problems. On only one does he come out ahead—and then only just: 40 per cent think his administration would boost home-building, while 38 per cent think it would not. On everything else we tested, fewer than one-third think a Miliband government would succeed. They include his pledge to keep gas and electricity prices as low as possible. Even more alarmingly, his worst scores relate to the three issues of greatest concern to millions of voters: strengthening the government’s finances (23 per cent say he would succeed, 54 per cent fail), making the economy grow faster (22 per cent against 55 per cent) and reducing the number of immigrants arriving in Britain each year (15 per cent to 64 per cent).

Is defeat inevitable? Not yet. One reason is that victory needs fewer votes than in the past. In the 1950s, the target was almost 50 per cent of the popular vote. By the 1980s it was 40 per cent. In 2005, Labour won outright with 36 per cent. It is just possible that Miliband could become Prime Minister at the head of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition government with only one-in-three voters backing Labour and twice as many supporting other parties.

This is why there has been so much talk of a “core vote” strategy, aimed at the 35 per cent who, it is believed, would vote Labour in order to eject the coalition from office. However, this strategy depends on two assumptions that might prove mistaken: first, that Labour’s core vote really is 35 per cent (it fell five points short of that in 2010); second, that 35 per cent will be enough. For although Labour might become the largest party with 33-34 per cent, it might need 36-37 per cent. The lower target depends on enough Lib Dem MPs holding their seats where the Tories came second last time—and Ukip hanging on to enough former Conservative voters to tilt Con-Lab marginals Labour’s way. If Labour is to win a real mandate, rather than gamble on crawling past the winning post by default, it must tackle its, and its leader’s, weaknesses. In addition to the normal policy and campaigning challenges that face any opposition, there are four tasks that cannot wait.

First, they must blunt the Tory attack that the last Labour government caused the recession. It’s too late to persuade voters that Gordon Brown was blameless, but Miliband can still argue that leading politicians and bankers around the world (including the Conservatives) misjudged the risks prior to 2008. His opportunity is to say that the world has changed, everyone has lessons to learn, and Labour has learned them. As our poll shows, too few of us believe that.

This leads to the second imperative: Miliband must show that he knows how to harness the dynamism of capitalism to the benefit of all. He has made forays into specific topics, such as energy prices, banks and, more recently, the housing market. Voters have yet to see him join the dots together to provide a bigger picture. “Milibandism” has nothing like the clarity of “Thatcherism.” Nor has he said enough about how Labour would help, rather than merely regulate, businesses to grow. Every Labour pronouncement on business should answer this question: if a young British equivalent of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were starting out today, how would Labour help them to succeed?

This ambition needs Miliband to secure third-party endorsements for each new policy. Privately, some energy company executives support Miliband’s plans to reform their market, just as there are decent bankers and landlords who would welcome new rules for financial services and rented homes. But if any of them have said so publicly, their remarks have gone unnoticed. Voters need to be convinced that Miliband’s plans really will work, and they are unlikely to take his word for it that they will. He needs relevant business leaders, and not just trade unionists, academics and friendly journalists, who will tell us: “Yes, this makes sense.”

Finally, Miliband must start sounding like a Prime Minister in waiting rather than a perpetually angry critic of the coalition. His attacks on Cameron are often well-argued and sometimes witty—but are almost always counter-productive. Despite having been a Cabinet minister, he gives too many voters the impression that he is a rookie debater, not a potential national leader. Unfair? Possibly. But politics is seldom fair. In 1997, Tony Blair (who had never been any kind of minister) showed that youthful vigour and public respect can go together. Miliband may wish to distance himself from some of Blair’s later decisions, but he needs to find ways to emulate Blair’s early appeal.