How has Ed done in the year since he won the leadership of the Labour Party? The consensus verdict is in: he found his feet this summer after a slowish start. His position within the party is now firmly established, which is a more comfortable platform from which to tackle the big challenge for the next year: establishing himself within the country.
New polling conducted by Deborah Mattinson and Ben Shimshon of BritainThinks for the new Fabian Review bears this out. (You can read the full polling and analysis here) They show how all leaders of the opposition suffer declining poll ratings in their first year; it’s during the second year the ones that go to be prime minister start to really connect with voters and see their numbers improve accordingly.
BritainThinks have been talking to people about the idea of leadership and what characteristics are important now. Two recent events seem to colour people’s ideal-type of leader: the MPs' expenses scandal and the financial crisis. And the political consequences of these trends are that, currently, the former is playing in Ed’s favour but the latter in Cameron’s.
The overwhelming loss of trust politicians have experienced over the last few years has seen ‘integrity’ leap to number one in people’s leadership wish-list. Here Ed has a slight edge (similarly he also has the lead over Cameron in being ‘a good listener’ and ‘empathy’). However at the moment Cameron has a bigger lead on being ‘decisive’ and having ‘a vision’.
What Miliband is experiencing here is the ‘Mommy problem’ familiar to politicians of the left: that in times of insecurity, voters tend toward the ‘strict father’ model of leadership more usually offered by the political right – a more disciplinarian, strong-on-defence-and-moral-responsibility type of offer. The left’s more social, empathetic vision of government can get crowded out by the machismo.
So Labour strategists either need to shift the political conversation onto those areas where Ed already has a natural advantage – a tough sell during a period of economic uncertainty that doesn’t look like going anywhere soon – or beat Cameron on what is presently home turf.
The ability to be ‘a great communicator’ (the polling’s 3rd biggest prize) is there – remember those ‘Ed speaks human’ placards at his leadership launch? They weren’t meant ironically, but some of that skill got a little lost in translation to a national audience. The next year should recapture that. And ‘decisive’ is also within grasp if the message of ‘responsibility at the top and bottom’, outlined in Miliband’s best speech so far, continues to guide his response to events, as it did over the summer (although, publically at least, more obviously over phone-hacking than the riots).
Overall the polling – as with many of the assessments in the magazine of Ed’s first year – gives a sense of ‘lots done, lots to do’. The greatest strategic challenge for the next year is to bring together the various plays that have been set in motion into a singular and compelling story of what Ed Miliband’s Labour is all about. The ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘the promise of Britain’ both tap into very strong currents of feeling and speak to the world as many people find it, as does the focus on rebuilding our sense of community and instilling responsibility across society. This is all fertile territory; to harvest the votes, the next year needs to find the narrative that binds it all together.