Miliband and the myth of the "35 per cent strategy"

Aiming for 35 per cent would mean settling for less. But it would be foolish not to recognise that, as in 2005, it could prove enough for a Labour majority.

Rachel Sylvester's Times column has caused a stir in Labour circles this morning, with its claim that some in the party believe Ed Miliband is pursuing a "35 per cent strategy". This would amount to securing the 29 per cent of voters who backed Labour in 2010, and adding on another six per cent of Lib Dem defectors in order to inch over the line. Dan Hodges similarly claims on his Telegraph blog: "Labour’s leader thinks that if he can convince just 35 per cent of voters to give his party the benefit of the doubt in 2015, he’ll win. Tony Blair is not alone in thinking it’s a strategy that is fundamentally flawed." 

It's hard to reconcile this with Miliband's aspiration to be a "one nation" prime minister and the "35 per cent" line is a fairly obvious and crude attempt to undermine his leadership. As one source close to the Labour leader told me this morning, "Aiming for 35 per cent suggests we'd settle for less, which is one of many reasons why it would be stupid to have that as our strategy." 

There isn't (and nor should there be) a "35 per cent strategy" but the debate over it is a good example of the increasing disparity between politics and psephology. After all, Labour's last victory in 2005, which saw it win a majority of 66, was achieved on a vote share of 35.2 per cent. Miliband will rightly aim to improve on this performance but with the boundary changes now abandoned, it is true that Labour only needs a small lead to secure a stable majority. The divided right (UKIP is now certain to improve on its 2010 share of 3.1 per cent) and the collapse of support for the Lib Dems in Tory-Labour marginals are strong points in the party's favour. There is no contradiction in wanting Labour to win on its terms, while also recognising these advantages. The disdain for Miliband's alleged "35 per cent strategy" says much more about the disagreement some have with his political choices (a different debate) than it does about Labour's prospects of victory. 

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.