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Project “Ed’s Charisma” – the mission to help Miliband loosen up

Miliband’s strategists reject the idea that goal-hanging is part of the plan.

The surest way to look prime ministerial is to be the prime minister. The point is less glib than it perhaps sounds. Conservatives cherish opinion polls showing that David Cameron has a substantial lead over Ed Miliband on measures of personal authority. Voters generally think Cameron is stronger and more charming than his Labour rival. On the specific question of who looks more like a prime minister, one recent survey had the incumbent 40 points ahead.

Well, people would say that, wouldn’t they? It is easier to picture someone working in Downing Street when he already lives there. That is one Labour defence of the leader’s tricky personal polling. Meanwhile, the party regularly has double-digit leads over the Tories.

Most Labour MPs think that the margin is not wide enough. Many worry that it expresses midterm dissatisfaction with the government more than enthusiasm for regime change and that just a smidgen of economic growth could lead to an abrupt reversal. Downing Street is confident that a presidential-style election battle between the two leaders will halt Mili­band’s momentum.

The view that Britain holds presidential elections disguised as parliamentary ones is commonplace in Westminster – and wrong. If it were so, Cameron would have crushed Gordon Brown to seize a majority. He didn’t because enough voters rejected his party, sticking with Labour despite its flawed frontman. It is the media coverage that is presidential but voters see beyond that.

Way of the jargon

It is possible that the people who tell pollsters that they intend to vote for Labour will do exactly that. It also seems unlikely that those who almost backed Cameron as the ambassador for a new kind of Conservative Party but doubted the sincerity of the change will give him the majority in 2015 that they denied him in 2010.

Those conditions have bred a kind of cynical optimism in some Labour quarters. This view has the party sneaking up on power, doing little more than waiting for divisions between the coalition parties and within them to shred the government’s credibility.

Miliband’s strategists reject the idea that goal-hanging is part of the plan. They know that voters punish parties deemed to be hiding their real agenda. By contrast, they assert, Miliband could not be more open about his intentions: he wants to refashion the British economy so it serves the many, not the few.

What worries many shadow cabinet ministers is not the ambition but the lack of supporting policy detail and the impenetrable language in which the vision is expressed. There is unease at the way Miliband surrounds himself with academics and theorists who indulge the leader’s fondness for jargon – advertising “pre-distribution”, for example, as the antidote to inequality – instead of challenging him to speak in plain English. The atmosphere of the faculty seminar in the leader’s office hinders what one aide describes as “Project ‘Ed’s Charisma’” – the mission to help Miliband loosen up and make it easier for people to imagine him as prime minister.

Partly with that end in mind, Miliband will start this year’s annual conference in Manchester with a question-and-answer session on 29 September, open to all comers at a venue outside the police security cordon. It is an innovation not without risk, aides concede. The crowd won’t be vetted to weed out hecklers. Yet the leader’s minders say that he performs better as “the real Ed”, engaging with the public, unimpeded by lecterns and released from the conventions of political rhetoric.

This year’s keynote address will, I am told, build on last year’s disquisition on “responsible capitalism” but with lessons learned from the hostile reception that lecture initially received. The Miliband camp is certain that the underlying thesis – distinguishing between “productive” and “predatory” commerce – was the right one. It belatedly won plaudits, including from some conservative commentators, as a more interesting analysis of the challenges facing the country than was offered by the Lib Dems or Tories. The message, however, lost coherence amid endless revision. It suffered from being written by committee, as even members of the committee admit.

This year, Miliband has spent more time working on the speech at home. He is said to be determined that it is his personal vision, delivered in his own words (a prospect that provokes cold sweats among those Labour sceptics who long for more campaign-ready sound bites). The emphasis will be on the kind of society that Miliband wants to see emerge from the ashes of austerity. It is a message designed in part to expose Cameron’s failure to offer an optimistic account of why he wants to govern. Even many Conservatives worry that their leader comes across as little more than a posh dilettante overseeing a bodge job on the public finances.

Emperor’s new clothes

No 10 is alert to Cameron’s crumbling image. Focus groups are sounding resentful. Views that the Prime Minister “doesn’t understand people like me” are, according to a senior Tory source, hardening into a feeling that he “doesn’t like people like me”.

Yet there doesn’t appear to be much concern in Downing Street that Miliband’s status will rise as Cameron’s popularity falls. Nor is there willingness to engage with the argument that the Labour leader is making about the economy and society. His account of systemic flaws in British capitalism is dismissed as the sophomoric ramblings of a political lightweight, taken seriously only by people who are comforted by the sound of soft left erudition and afraid to confront the possibility that there might be no substance behind it. “It’s a case of the geek emperor’s new clothes,” says one No 10 insider.

Miliband is relaxed about that scorn. He believes that the Tory leadership is too ideologically blinkered or too arrogant to heed the desire in Britain for a dramatic change in political direction. Even if he is right about that, he has a long way to go before he persuades people that the change voters want is to a Labour government, with him as prime minister. Still, the task is made easier as long as the incumbent seems to think the best qualification for doing the job is simply looking the part.

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.