Labour's policy ideas are pointless if the public just isn't listening

Miliband must address deeper public grievances if banking, benefits and other reforms Labour announces this month are to even get a hearing.

“I don’t know who that is,” says a young man on Tottenham Court Road when I ask about Ed Miliband. The Labour leader, I say as he waits impatiently at a bus stop. “Oh - yeah, I’ll probably vote Labour,” he replies, leaping onto a bus before I can catch his name.

Announcing policies is worth little if nobody is listening. Round the corner at University College London (UCL), Miliband had just given a major speech on his plans to shake up the banking market. Labour’s biggest challenge for 2014 may be less a matter of winning the arguments than convincing the electorate that its arguments are worth listening to. It cannot be confident of winning an election on the votes of people who cannot name its leader.

The responses of passers-by to Miliband’s speech on Friday suggest he must deal with profound public grievances over broken promises, immigration and uninspiring leadership before he can win support for new ideas. Especially when the ideas are about subjects as unsexy as the bank lending market.

Charmain Stanley, a jobseeker trying to set up a juice bar, may benefit from banking reform but thinks little of Miliband.

“Getting funding for it is an absolute nightmare. I’ve got a business proposal, I’m passionate and I’ve done my research but banks aren’t willing to fund me coming off benefits,” says Charmain, a former waitress.

“I don’t like Miliband as such, but maybe more competition would make banks help a lot of people out there like me who are trying to get ideas off the ground and get off benefits," she says. Why does she dislike Miliband? “He’s not very honest - though I tend to rank them all the same. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in politics. It’s why I don’t vote. But if they stuck to their word, I’d happily vote, and encourage other people too as well.”

Mark Toovey, a retired engineer, is not convinced Miliband’s proposal will work.

“I wouldn’t have thought it would make any difference, to tell the truth. There’s quite a few banks out there anyway, and a new one, Metro,” he says, pointing to HSBC and NatWest branches along the street.

He is more impressed by the Labour leader’s cost-of-living agenda, but shares Charmaine’s deep mistrust of politicians. “Capping energy prices – that’s a good idea. But whoever’s in opposition, they’re always saying we’re going to cap and cut this or that. It’s just a ploy to get your vote, isn’t it? They don’t mean it.” Can Labour do anything to gain his support? “No.  I don’t like Miliband. Labour let too many people into the country.”

 Paul Belisle, a demolition worker from Newcastle, is also more concerned by immigration.

“Miliband’s just another w***, like the rest of them,” he says bitterly. “Look at the state the country’s in now. We can’t accommodate all these foreigners – I don’t mind the culture, but wages are getting lower and lower, all the time. They work for next to nothing, and it starts to affect us.” Such anger suggests Labour have some way to go in convincing the public they are sorry for past mistakes, and serious about dealing with them.

“It doesn’t interest me,” Paul says of Miliband’s new banking policy. “I don’t vote, or pay a great deal of attention.” Could anything persuade him to vote? “Well there is one thing. Throw all the foreigners out. None of the politicians have done enough.”

Students Isaac Qureshi and Lizzy Hughes think the policy is ridiculous, and the Labour leader even more so.

“People would rather Miliband sorted out the pickle the big banks are in, rather than creating more smaller banks,” says Isaac, a languages student at UCL. ”I don’t think anyone really gives a monkeys what he says, especially a speech on the fine details. He’s a bit of a laughing stock to be honest, and he’s too non-descript to hold your attention.”

 Lizzy adds: “When someone mentions Cameron, it’s usually with a negative or positive opinion. But at least it’s an opinion. I actually can’t remember what Miliband looks like.”

Isaac and Lizzy look back blankly when I ask what they make of Labour’s cost-of-living agenda. Had they heard about plans to cap energy prices? Both of them shake their heads. Fewer than 500 metres away, Miliband won a standing ovation as he rounded off his speech. “We can only do better if the conversation in politics catches up with our country,” he had told the loyal Labour crowd. Better get running then, Ed.

Ed Miliband outlines policies for banking reform in his speech last week at the University of London. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.