The biggest problem for Labour is that people don't know what it stands for

History shows that parties can win despite the unpopularity of their leaders, but to do so Labour needs to offer policy substance.

Our poll this week for the Evening Standard showed that 63% of the public don’t like Ed Miliband. It is a headline writer's dream in a difficult week for Miliband – but focusing on this finding misses the really important points from the poll. True, digging into the data and trends on that question, if anything, makes it look worse for the Labour leader.  If we see leaders as an electoral asset to attract voters from other parties, David Cameron comes out much stronger: he is liked by nearly twice as many non-Conservative voters (33%) than Miliband is liked by non-Labour voters (18%). Comparisons with Cameron in opposition are not good either: two years out, only 36% said they didn’t like Cameron, some 27 percentage points lower than Miliband’s current level of dislike.  

On satisfaction with how Miliband is doing his job as leader of the opposition, he gets his lowest ever rating in this latest poll and is now at exactly the same level as William Hague was at this point in his leadership of the Conservatives. And interestingly, satisfaction with Miliband is lower, not higher, than average among public sector workers – a key target constituency for Labour at the election.  

It is difficult to present any of that as a strong showing.  But the question is whether it matters. As has been pointed out, being liked or even highly rated as a potential PM is a poor indicator of electoral success. The races between Ted Heath and Harold Wilson, and then Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, went against the predictions you would have made based on their personal approval ratings.  

Thatcher was never widely liked – what shifted in the public mind over her premiership was an increasing dislike for her policies. And the same was true for Tony Blair: even right at the end in 2007, only 37% said they disliked him, but dislike of his policies stood at 61%, double the level the decade before. So likeability is something that you can’t change much - political leaders rarely shift from being hated to loved or vice versa - and it may not matter that much anyway.  

The much more important finding from the poll is therefore on understanding of the leaders’ policies – and again this is worrying for Labour.  Half of the public (51%) still do not know what Miliband stands for, compared with 33% for David Cameron. And the position among party supporters is just as bad. Only 23% of Conservative voters say they don’t know what Cameron stands for compared with the 40% of Labour voters who don’t know what Miliband stands for. However, this not just a problem for Miliband but for the Labour Party as a whole. Another poll for the Standard in May last year showed a very similar pattern, with a much greater understanding of what the Conservative Party stands for than what the Labour Party stands for.

This lack of policy substance is a missed opportunity for Labour as they still have a significant advantage over the Tories in attraction to the party as a whole. The Conservatives have not shifted their overall party image as much as they would have have liked. Back in 2008, they had pushed dislike for the party down to 47%, but in the latest poll it is back up to 57% - dislike of Labour is at 43%. The call from senior Labour members to hear more from diverse voices across the party seems exactly right, to emphasise the importance of the party.

But they need to have clear and distinctive things to say. The old political triangle of party, leaders and policies is still a useful frame.  It is clear to see who has the lead on two points of the triangle. Still, it is sharpening the policy point that Labour needs to focus on most. 

Bobby Duffy is managing director of Ipsos MORI

Ed Miliband attends the launch of mental health charity MindFull. Photograph: Getty Images.
Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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