Ed should forget the polls...

It's my mate Ian he should worry about.

On the surface today's Times/Populus poll makes grim reading. Sixty three per cent of voters say they find it hard to imagine Ed Miliband as prime minister. Even more worryingly, 49 per cent of Labour's own supporters say they have difficulty believing he will follow Tony Blair and Gordon Brown across the threshold of Downing Street.

In the year since he was elected leader, amidst the cuts, riots and economic stagnation, Labour's poll rating has increased by 1 per cent.

So far so bad. But one poll does not make a summer; nor an autumn leadership crisis. And elsewhere it is possible to detect some more positive news.

According to the most recent MORI poll, for example, Ed Miliband has higher net personal ratings then either of the other party leaders; (Clegg -25, Cameron, -12, EM, -7). His personal ratings also stand at almost exactly the same level as David Cameron after a year as leader; -7 vs -6 (Nov 2006), -5 (Dec 2006), -9 (Jan 2007). And he has a higher satisfaction number (36 per cent satisfied) than Cameron had at any time until October 2007, nearly two years after he became leader.

Among Ed Miliband's staff there's thinly disguised derision at what they regard as an effort by the Times to commission a poll for what one source describes as "front page editorialising". They point out that a question asking for perceptions of an event that has not yet taken place is bound to elicit a negative response.

So much for statistics. What about the truth?

The truth is Ed Miliband has three significant problems; none insurmountable, but all potentially fatal.

The first goes by the technical term of my mate Ian. Ian has no interest in politics. He works in the City but, like most city workers, doesn't drive a Porsche, drown himself in Veuve Cilcquot in the Minories or squander the tax payer's bank bailout on the Cap d'Antibes. When the middle gets squeezed, Ian feels the pinch.

The other day I asked his view on the leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition. "Ed Miliband?" he responded, "Come on. You're not being serious are you?"

An anecdote, yes. But a common one. Neil Kinnock suffered from antipathy. Blair suspicion. Brown hostility. But with Ed Miliband it's a lack of credibility. And for an opposition leader that's potentially the most destructive negative of them all.

Over the past few months Miliband has shown genuine leadership. On welfare reform, the responsibility agenda and hacking. At the TUC yesterday, even hardened trade unions officials voiced grudging respect for the directness of his tone and message.

Yet he remains trapped by the legacy of his first hundred days, and his inability to define himself during the vital period when people remained receptive to, and mildly interested in, the new leader of the Labour party. That window of opportunity has now closed, and the voters have made up their minds. Of course their minds can be changed, in the same way Tony Blair was transformed from Bambi to Stalin. But it's harder to reverse perceptions than shape them.

Ed Miliband's team feel the public and private polling indicate he's making headway in this area. "They're interested in him," said one Labour source. They also remain adamant it was important for him to observe what they call, "a period of grace and humility" in the aftermath of his leadership win.

"It wouldn't have been appropriate for us to come straight out of the election and started making up policy," said an aide, "by stepping back we've now given ourselves a platform to take a serious look at the issues facing the country."

The second problem, to use a genuine buzzword, are the "optics".

At the moment Ed Miliband simply does not look the part. "The TUC speech is a classic example," said one shadow cabinet source. "You read it on paper and you think 'hey, that's pretty good'. But then you seem him on the news. And it misses. The delivery and body language are just all wrong. And like it or not, TV is the medium through which he's being judged."

Again, Miliband's team reject this analysis."People who are saying that are behind the curve," said an insider. While they acknowledge problems at the start of his leadership, they say he is maturing, pointing to the modulation of his speaking style to allow for a slower and clearer delivery. "There's a poise and strength that wasn't there before," said one observer.

Poise or not, his problems persist, especially around the 'S' word. Strategy. Tactically Miliband has shown himself to be a shrewd operator, as his brother found to his cost. But he is yet to demonstrate and ability to construct a coherent long term narrative out of his myriad, and at times contradictory, political positions.

A classic example relates to his posture on the deficit. Yesterday's TUC speech contained a very significant passage in which he appeared to recalibrate his stance on the cuts and public spending; "We are not going to be able to spend our way to a new economy," he warned, before adding: "I sometimes hear it said that Labour opposes every cut. Some people might wish that was true. But it's not. We committed ourselves to halving the deficit over four years. That would mean cuts."

Yet no sooner had Ed Miliband torn the "deficit denier" badge from his breast than he was scrabbling around for a needle and thread and desperately trying to sew it back on again.

"Sources close to Mr Miliband argue that the deficit is not going to be the big issue at the next election", reported the Times this morning, "Mr Miliband's office continues to dispute claims that public spending was too high before the financial crisis and say that the Tories supported their spending plans during this period."

"This is insane," said one shadow cabinet source. "The deficit is the issue that will define us. This is the sort of nonsense you'd normally only get from Ed Balls."

Friends of Labour's leader claim the electorate cannot picture him as prime minister because he does not yet hold that office. To his enemies it's proof he never will. It's certainly true that today's reports of his death are premature. But it's also true that a year into his leadership Ed Miliband has some serious problems to address.

My advice is forget the polls and focus groups. Go buy my mate Ian a pint.

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge