Ed Miliband speaks with David Cameron before listening to Angela Merkel addressing both Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster on February 27, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Growth is up, unemployment is down – but Labour's stubborn poll lead remains

On the Labour side there is relief and a sprinkling of surprise that Tory popularity isn’t rising in sync with GDP.

When George Osborne’s plan for the economy was obviously failing, Conservative MPs had the consolation of understanding why they were losing to Ed Miliband. Now that the recovery is established, they find Labour’s lead in opinion polls mystifying. It is disorienting in a race to feel sure of having overtaken someone yet still see him out in front.

On the Labour side there is relief and a sprinkling of surprise that Tory popularity isn’t rising in sync with gross domestic product. For Miliband, this is vindication of the decision last autumn to focus all of Labour’s firepower on the cost of living. He judged that the Treasury was neglecting the causes of domestic hardship and was complacent about the scale of public anger.

Even Milisceptics admit it was a pivotal moment, flummoxing Downing Street and restoring opposition spirits after a despon­dent summer. “If he hadn’t pulled it off we’d be behind in the polls by now,” says one shadow minster. “Everyone would be talking about whether Andy [Burnham] or Yvette [Cooper] would be a better leader.”

Succession gossip is constant in all parties because there are always more egos than vacancies at the top. What matters is not the existence of speculation but how much of it is public. Labour jitters are eclipsed by Tory neurosis. Boris Johnson’s candidacy is openly discussed as if the moribundity of David Cameron’s leadership is a given.

It needn’t be. Miliband’s aides don’t claim to have won any big economic arguments, only to have shifted views of what the argument is about. The Tories are still good at convincing people that any hardship is a consequence of Labour’s misspent rule.

Oppositions can only complain, while governments can act. Thus the Budget was stuffed with devices to rebut the charge of Tory indifference to hardship: subsidies for childcare; support for new homebuyers; tax cuts for low earners; relief for bingo players. Labour dismisses Osborne’s interventions as gimmicks that are “too little, too late”, which is what oppositions say when governments do things that might be popular.

Yet Miliband knows he needs to refresh his attack or face another morale-sapping loss of momentum. He needs to persuade people that the things they don’t like about the UK economy will never change as long as the Tories are in charge because job insecurity, miserable wages and corporate fat-cattery are what Conservatives stand for. In this view, Osborne and Cameron have cooked up a bogus recovery that feeds their friends and leaves crumbs for everyone else.

The challenge is making the case without sounding spiteful. Tories cast any Labour argument about wealth distribution as an attack on honest aspiration and a threat to confiscate middle-class salaries. Business leaders are suspicious of the opposition. That exercises Ed Balls more than Miliband, although anyone who imagines the Labour leader as an anti-capitalist agitator ignores the years he served as a Treasury adviser. As a guide to striking the right tone, aides have been studying Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, delivered on 28 January, in which he promised “new ladders of opportunity” for Americans to whom the benefits of growth are not trickling down.

There is a tension between the appetite for populist attacks on the undeserving rich and the need to reassure wary voters that a Labour government is for everyone and no cause for alarm. Bashing bankers and deriding Downing Street Etonians get pulses racing on the left but they convey a hint of menace that sits uneasily with Miliband’s more inclusive, optimistic “one nation” rhetoric. Activists grumble that “one nation” doesn’t sell on the doorstep.

There is no such dilemma in Downing Street. The terms of the Tory campaign are locked down: Labour burned down the house; Cameron is rebuilding it; give him time to finish the job; beware the arsonists Miliband and Balls offering incendiary debt and taxes. Throw in a referendum on EU membership and you have a formula that every Tory can unite behind. Except they aren’t united. The message has been pumped out loud and clear, the economy is up, unemployment is down and Labour’s stubborn little lead won’t die.

Cameron’s few cheerleaders insist the Tory vote share is a lagging indicator, tracking good economic news but with a delay. In support of this thesis they point to a small but discernible narrowing trend in the polls. Give it time, they say, and Miliband’s freakish endurance will end. Besides, the argument continues, voting intention is just one of three classic general election predictors and by no means the most reliable. On the others – who is trusted to run the economy; who makes the best leader – Cameron is ahead.

A similar view can be found in Labour circles, expressed as a prayer that Tory infighting might drag Cameron down before a wave of economic confidence carries him to safety. Yet Miliband’s allies speculate (as much in hope as expectation) that the economy may have boosted the Tories as much as it ever will. The Chancellor says his plan has worked and that his Budget brings blessed relief to the nation’s toiling classes. Maybe everyone who is inclined to buy that story is already voting Tory and no one else is listening.

The evidence is inconclusive. We know only that the opposition can sustain a lead through four quarters of good economic news. But for how much longer? Cameron and Osborne think the laws of political gravity will kick in to their advantage. They feel that the economic argument has been settled in their favour and that it is only a matter of time before the opinion polls confirm that they are winning.

Such unquestioning confidence helps explain why they aren’t. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.