Ed Miliband must introduce some passion into his politics. Photo: Getty
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Ed Miliband must realise that next year’s election will be won on emotion

The Labour leader needs to appeal to human feeling to truly unite the United Kingdom, and be in with a chance of electoral success.

The picture for Labour in Scotland is looking bleak. Latest polling from Ipsos Mori has found that 52 per cent of Scots will be voting for the SNP in next year’s general election, with only 23% intending to back Labour. No fewer than 12 Labour constituencies voted Yes in September’s Scottish independence referendum and Nicola Sturgeon has taken the reigns as First Minister with renewed vigor, with SNP membership tripling since the vote.

Last week, it was estimated that Labour would lose 15 seats to the SNP. Now it could be as many as 36 of their 41 seats – a historic moment of major catastrophe in British politics. Without strong support in Scotland, Labour will face a humiliating defeat come May. The Scottish issue should be of concern to the entire party, not just those in the region, as it could very well lose Labour the election.

We know that modern-day politics is all about emotion. The surge of support for the SNP is evidence of this. Next year’s election will be won on human feelings. The emotional momentum that used to be the domain of the left has now seeped into the whole of mainstream politics.

The No contingent in the referendum campaign realised this only at the last moment, saving the Union by the skin of their teeth. The Yes had all the good songs, all the best soundbites, until the usually-sullen Gordon Brown erupted into righteous, Calvinistic anger at the prospect of the Union being torn asunder. Finally, here was a rhetoric that is at the level of the issues at stake. This is what Labour needs to do to give itself a chance of victory in May.

Making a last-dash attempt to squeeze over the 35 per cent line is a suicidal strategy, one which will alienate much of the electorate and even the party faithful. Politics is about emotion and the performance of emotion. Labour must pull out all the stops to appeal to the emotions of the electorate, not through any kind of manipulation or sentimentalism, but through talking clearly, coherently, accurately and passionately about the issues at stake.

It is a myth that London doesn’t care about Glasgow and that the Labour Party in Westminster treat Scottish Labour as nothing more than a branch office. But this is a dangerous myth, one that many people across the UK believe to be true. The reason why so many people put stock in this myth is because it echoes a deep-seated belief that the political ‘centre’ or elite are cavalier or even apathetic to the fringes.

The only way to counter damaging myths is with strong performance. You do not allow anyone to suspect that you may go back on promises already made (for example, on devolution), another powerful and damaging myth, or that you do not listen to those outside London. Ed Miliband has defended against leadership attacks within his own party by developing a narrative of a party united. He now needs to do more to make this a national narrative of a country united, one that includes Scotland and persuades the electorate and party supporters that they are and will be listened to by Labour. As leader of the Labour Party, Miliband must be a strong, rallying figure and get on stage and perform this, alongside a renewed and preferably federal Scottish Labour Party and some real policies about reducing poverty and income disparity and involving people in politics.

The United Kingdom is our national story, one which has emotional resonance with us all. My mother – a Glaswegian – and my father – a Dubliner – met in London as young British workers. This emotional appeal of Britishness must be used by Miliband to illustrate the essence of a properly United Kingdom. Miliband must make the Scots want to elect a Labour government in 2015. Without Scotland, Labour will fail in May. Miliband must tell the Scots why those 40 MPs are needed, both for Scotland and for us all.

John Gaffney is professor of politics at Aston University and co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe. He is currently completing a two-year study of UK political leadership, with a focus on the narrative of Ed Miliband’s leadership.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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