Tories worry about ‘voteless recovery’ as Labour still in front

London Letter: For all Ed Miliband’s awkwardness, the next election is his to lose

Labour leader Ed Miliband taking a selfie recently in a hairdresser’s in Cambridge city centre. Miliband’s image is a problem for his party, as illustrated by his on-camera difficulties recently when he struggled to bite into a bacon sandwich. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau /PA

Labour leader Ed Miliband taking a selfie recently in a hairdresser’s in Cambridge city centre. Miliband’s image is a problem for his party, as illustrated by his on-camera difficulties recently when he struggled to bite into a bacon sandwich. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau /PA

Fri, Aug 1, 2014, 01:00

Popular opinion in Britain says that Ed Miliband is gormless. The numbers, however, say that he, not David Cameron, has the best chance of occupying No 10 Downing Street after next May.

For the past few days, Conservative MPs have rejoiced over economic data which claims that the UK has repaired the damage suffered by the 2008 economic crisis.

Such figures are usually manna from heaven for governing parties a year out from an election.

And they may be so again, but there is concern among Conservatives of “a voteless recovery” – one where the public accepts that things are getting better, just not for them. Miliband’s image is, however, a problem for Labour, as was graphically illustrated by his on-camera difficulties recently when he struggled to bite into a bacon sandwich.

Last week, he tried to tackle the problem by putting forward his very awkwardness as an advantage, as proof of his virtue in an image-driven age.

“David Cameron is a very sophisticated and successful exponent of a politics driven by image,” he told the Royal Institute of British Architects.

“I am not going to able to compete with that. And I don’t intend to,” he said, noting admiringly Cameron’s Arctic photographs with huskies during opposition days.

“Even my biggest supporters would say I haven’t matched him on that,” said Miliband, adding that he had come to accept that “it’s not where my talents lie – as you may have noticed”. Such self-deprecation in a politician in the modern age is unusual, but it carries its own risks if all it does is attract attention to faults, rather than creating ground for tolerance.

His situation is made worse by the existence of a powerful, biased press – one that falls mostly, but not entirely, the Conservatives’ way – that wants to magnify his flaws cruelly.

Question of image

His own people are worried, but not just about the question of image. Policy guru Jon Cruddas complains that a dead hand meets new, radical ideas.

Ostensibly loyal, some of Miliband’s shadow cabinet can imagine life after him – particularly the husband-and-wife partnership of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper.

Nothing will happen on that front until after the 2015 general election, but Miliband will get no second chances if he fails. Since his election, Miliband has taken Labour to the left, though tags of “left” and “right” no longer mean quite what they used to do in British politics.

Under a Labour government the minimum wage would rise; zero-hour working contracts would be curbed; energy prices would be frozen; housing rents would be capped, he says.

However, Labour would be “big on reform, not big on spending” – a clear nod to a realisation that Labour is still blamed for the economic collapse. Radicalism, though, only goes so far. Labour talks of a greater role for the state over railways, but is reluctant to re-nationalise, even though public support for such a move exists. For now, the Conservatives are limbering up some traditional war-horses for the coming battle, hinting at lower taxes and pointing to Labour’s record on spending and tax.

This week, it was a reheat of the “death tax” – a Labour idea to levy a 15 per cent bill on the estate of the elderly after their death to pay for nursing home care.

Borrowed from Ireland

The idea is borrowed from Ireland. If implemented, it would be seized on gratefully by the clever. For now, however, the Conservatives can exploit it as a bogeyman.

Up to now, the majority have put Labour ahead of the Conservatives, but not by the margins previously seen, while much attention has gone on the UK Independence Party. The common lore had it that Ukip would fall back after the European elections, but so far it is showing few signs of it.

Last week polling company ComRes put the Conservatives on 27 points, their lowest figure since 2010. Labour was on 33 points, while Ukip recorded 17 points. The Ukip national figure, however, is largely meaningless, since the party’s support is uneven – but the poll results, if carried through to an election, would give Labour a 74-seat majority.

For now, politicians must guess voters’ desires. Economic growth could be an encouragement to stick with the Conservatives, or seen as an opportunity to return to old concerns, such as the National Health Service – where Labour is strongest.

The Conservatives will make the coming campaign a Cameron/Miliband battle, believing that Miliband will lose it. He may well do, but it is his to lose.

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