Preparing for power
IN THE term of every government a psychological point is passed when the political horizon adjusts to bring into sight the next election. And, while politicians are said to be always fighting the next election, at this point the language and preoccupations shift subtly into a new mode.
The British party conference season is at such a moment and last week the Lib-Dems, when they were not taking lumps out of their own leader, agonised loudly about the viability and political acceptability of a Labour-Lib-Dem coalition government. This week, Labour in Manchester also sets its sights firmly on 2015 and on convincing British voters that leader Ed Miliband should be considered prime ministerial material.
Things are not going well for the coalition government. Britain is in a double-dip recession and it is fighting a losing battle with the budget deficit. And Labour may be a comfortable – though scarcely comfortable enough for the midterm – 10 points ahead in the opinion polls but there’s many a slip...
Not the least of its problems is the leader whose agreeable but policy wonkish and somewhat aloof demeanour has not yet struck a chord with voters. Miliband’s approval ratings are improving – the YouGov poll tracker shows it has gone up by 31 points since mid-January while David Cameron’s has slumped by 25. But the Guardian’s weekend poll finds that only 28 per cent of respondents can imagine him as prime minister while 63 per cent can not. Just 14 per cent of the respondents in its poll rate him “able to take tough decisions”.
The Tories view Miliband as an asset to them, and have leaked plans to make him the focus of a sustained campaign, a move Miliband has with some justice described as a compliment. Indeed, a campaign focused on the Labour leader may simply draw the “plebs’” attention to their somewhat unsympathetic, privileged old-Etonian alternative. There is an unvarnished, earnest authenticity to Miliband which is most marketable.
Although some of his senior colleagues have previously distanced themselves from the idea, the Labour leader’s warning to banks that a new Labour government will move to split their investment and retail divisions is politically astute. It will be popular among middle class voters, distances the party from perceptions that when in government it was a cheerleader for City excess, and chimes well with the likely theme of his conference speech on the need for “responsible capitalism”. Reform not revolution – but a willingness to take on the fat cats blamed for the crisis.
An election campaign can not be nourished entirely on a diet of negative anti-cuts, anti-austerity rhetoric, and Miliband has moved to put some flesh on a Labour alternative. He made it clear that Labour would restore the top tax rate of 50p, and shadow chancellor Ed Balls has proposed a radical £3 billion investment programme in housing (from the proceeds of the imminent auction of the 4G mobile phone spectrum). The party will also need to be more specific about areas like education, welfare, and the NHS. The election campaign is on.