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.
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”