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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.

Ed Miliband attends the launch of mental health charity MindFull. Photograph: Getty Images.

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