Miliband should not revisit the past if he wants Labour to count in the future
Opinion: Tories still have work to do not to be seen as the party of the ‘toffs’
Ed Miliband campaigning in Walworth, south London. Labour is running at 10 points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls. Photograph: PA
There’s a spring in the step of many a British Tory MP these days. At last the prospects for the general election in 2015 do not appear so grim, the economy is showing signs of an upturn, their rivals on the right, Ukip, may be slipping, and, having hired two star political gurus with election-winning credentials, Lynton Crosby and Jim Messina, they are increasingly confident they can set the agenda.
Comfort can also be found in the perception of a Labour Party adrift with a leader in Ed Miliband who has failed to capture the popular imagination and is surrounded by back-seat drivers whose helpful strategic advice tends only to draw attention to his own deficiencies – his lack of “political cojones” and vision.
George Mudie, one of the party’s Scottish MPs, complains of a “difficulty knowing what we stand for”.
But it would be far too early to start writing off the party which starts from a built-in electoral advantage.
In 2010, the Conservatives won 306 seats, 20 short of a majority, to Labour’s 258, its second worst vote ever, with the Lib Dems taking 57. For 2015, the Conservative strategy is to try to hold their 40 most marginal seats and gain 40 more to give them outright power.
But the Tories failed in a bid to rejig the constituencies to their advantage because their Lib Dem partners were angered by betrayal over voting reform. And they now need a lead of some 6 percentage points even to come level on seats with Labour. The latter has been running a poll lead of about 11 per cent, and although it dropped to 6 per cent this week, it then bounced back to 10 per cent.
‘Party of toffs’
And, despite his efforts, David Cameron, who famously pledged as he took over in 2005 to “detoxify” his party’s brand, has not succeeded in shaking the “party of toffs and middle-aged, Middle-England” image – his party is still toxic in minority communities, has only one seat in Scotland, and just 20 of the 124 urban seats in the midlands and the north. A mountain to climb.
This week, a Guardian/ICM poll suggested voters have more trust in the economic competence of David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, with Labour falling behind on the issue by 16 percentage points. But Miliband will be well aware that Tony Blair won in 1997, lagging 22 percentage points behind, on the economy.
And although an Ipsos/Mori opinion poll disclosed that more than twice as many people disliked Miliband as liked him – on a par with the low with ratings given to Gordon Brown in 2008, and 10 points worse than Cameron, Labour remains significantly more liked than the Tories.
Although a key challenge for Labour will be to build its leader’s popularity, the electoral record suggests that personal popularity may not be as decisive an issue as many believe.
The past will be the central Conservative theme at the election, and they are hoping that by repeating ad nauseam the successful refrain that it “wos Labour wot got us in the mess we’re in” , they can capitalise on their marginal economic trust advantage.
Miliband is receiving plenty of encouragement to respond with a robust defence of the Blair/Brown years. Blair spin doctor Alastair Campbell is leading the charge: “The right-wing press and its broadcasting echo chamber will not be easy to turn around on this, and the coalition will scream ‘mess we inherited’ even louder. But it can and must be done. Britain had 10 good years of growth and prosperity under Labour, which is one of the many reasons we won three elections and stopped David Cameron winning a majority.”
Former Labour MP Chris Mullin adds his tuppence worth: “To paraphrase Bill Clinton: it was the bankers, stupid. The only thing Labour needs to apologise for is not regulating the banks sufficiently.”
But although there is a need to respond to the Tory attacks, Miliband would be well-advised not to make a strategy of winning the next war by refighting and winning the last. It may be unfair to Blair/Brown but they remain, and will remain, deeply unpopular, and any campaign that emphasises their “triumphs” is likely to look too defensive. Exactly the battleground the Tories will revel in.
Miliband has no real choice but to fight the battle on an alternative vision of Britain, to articulate a clear alternative policy platform that reaches out to a hurt but caring middle class which sees unreformed Toryism as a defence of privilege and as a prisoner to extremism and narrow-minded Euroscepticism.
In truth, no matter the upbeat mood of Tories and their media friends, as the Spectator put it: “Whatever troubles Miliband is having, Labour will be competitive in 2015.”