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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.