Cameron's weakness is Miliband's strength

The electorate doesn't need to like its prime ministers but lack of strength never plays well.

Forget the LOLs. The most surprising moment of Rebekah Brooks's evidence to the Leveson inquiry on Friday came when the former News International boss confirmed that David Cameron really did think Ed Miliband had him "on the run" last July.

Asked about a reported message -- sent via a third party -- that read "sorry I couldn’t have been as loyal to you as you have been to me, but Ed Miliband had me on the run”, Brooks admitted that the gist of the communication was correct.

Credit then to Francis Elliot of the Times and James Hanning of the Independent, whose scoop features in the updated biography of the PM, Cameron: Practically a Conservative. And hands up those of us who thought the reported message was too far fetched.

It's not so much that Miliband wasn't making life awkward for Cameron over News of the World/Milly Dowler revelations last summer; it's more the unlikelihood that Cameron would ever admit (even in private) that the Labour leader was besting him. Cameron may not be the "arrogant posh boy" of Nadine Dorries's imagining but he's not one to show weakness.

What's interesting to observe is that the electoral dividend Miliband gained by going after Rupert Murdoch and co last July has echoes today as Cameron suffers by association with the same people.

A YouGov poll in today's Sunday Times not only puts Labour 12 points ahead of the Tories (Labour 43 per cent, Conservatives 31 per cent, Lib Dems 10 per cent, others 17 per cent), but it shows a personal ratings swing towards Miliband and away from Cameron.

In the race to be the least disliked (this is modern politics, after all), Miliband is on minus 23, up from minus 33, while Cameron is on minus 29

As YouGov's Anthony Wells notes: 

This is the first time [Miliband] has enjoyed a higher approval rating than Cameron since last July (just after the hacking scandal), and only the second time he has done so since being elected as Labour leader.

Moreover, when asked whether Cameron is a strong or weak leader, 40 per cent say he is weak. That's up 10 points from when the same question was asked in March. Meanwhile, only 26 per cent think he's strong. 

The electorate doesn't need to like its prime ministers but perceptions of weakness never play well.

Miliband has often struggled to present himself as a decisive leader -- too often portrayed as in the pockets of the unions, in the shadow of his elder brother or at the receiving end from Cameron at PMQs. But right now it's the PM who is failing to convince people that he's in charge. 

The ever readable Alex Massie summed up Cameron's problem in a Spectator blog post entitled "Weak, Weak, Weak: Cameron's Brooks Affair Will Haunt Him". Massie wrote:

The more details emerge of Cameron's contacts with Brooks and the rest of the News International set the worse it looks like being for the PM.

The polls certainly appear to reflect that view.

 

Ed Miliband and David Cameron, 9 May 2012. Credit: Getty Images

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.