Ed Miliband must learn that change can scare people

Politicians love a change narrative - it's uplifting. But the dominant mood now is of pessimism and fear, and Labour must adapt accordingly.

Ed Miliband meets Barack Obama at Buckingham Palace
Ed Miliband meets Barack Obama at Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Getty Images

Change is no longer the currency of politics – security is. That is the message, or at least one of the messages, that emerged from Barack Obama’s re-election. As the post-mortem continues and the corpse of the Romney campaign is dissected, one fact is being overlooked: it was Mitt Romney, not Obama, who pilfered, if not quite seized, the mantle of change.

We know that not because of Romney’s hubristic claims, but because Obama’s own supporters conceded as much. After the first presidential debate they were unequivocal. “The first debate really did disrupt the race and presents a painful real-time test of what happens when the president tries to convince people of progress and offer a very modest vision of future change,” reported James Carville and Stan Greenberg. The Los Angeles Times agreed: “All Romney has to do, by contrast, is propose a credible change in direction. He’s done that, proposing across-the-board cuts in tax rates, an overhaul of the tax code and deep reductions in federal spending. His plan won’t appeal to Democrats, and there are plenty of analysts and economists who doubt that Romney can make the numbers work. But he’s not proposing to stay the course set by Obama, that’s for sure.”

The Fabian deputy general secretary, Marcus Roberts, who enjoys good links with the Obama team and worked on Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, contrasted Obama’s strategy with the old Lee Atwater maxim “Choose the ditch you’re gonna to die in”. “Consider this,” he wrote on the Fabians’ website, “Chicago started with attack on Mitt, went briefly positive in May, went back to attack, went positive at the convention and then went to a different type of attack. Then, last week the TV ads were back to bashing Bain. Now, the campaign says Obama will close positive. That’s a lot of different ditches.”

It was, but despite abandoning the moral high ground, scrambling from foxhole to foxhole and ceding the hopey-changey thing to the Republicans, Obama won, comfortably.

Feel the fear

Politicians love a change narrative. It’s uplifting. It reminds them why they came into politics in the first place. But in the present economic and political climate, it is also a recipe for disaster. The popular mood – both here and in the States – isn’t of hope and optimism but pessimism and fear.

A survey by Havas Media testing voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidates’ ability to help society as a whole and them as individuals came up with what the pollster termed “atrocious” results. Asked whether the candidates would “help make my life easier”, “help me live a better or fuller life” or “help me be a more responsible citizen”, no more than 32 per cent of respondents agreed it applied to either Romney or Obama.

But this was never going to be the election for a march on the sunlit uplands, and Obama recognised that. His campaign adverts weren’t promising change you could believe in, they were bombing Romney back to the political Stone Age: on Bain, on tax, on the “47 per cent”. Even more importantly, the campaign portrayed Obama not as the great reformer, but as the great protector. Your factory was under threat, he’d make sure it stayed open. Your son or daughter was serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, he would bring them safely home.

Understandably, some people are wary about drawing parallels with events across the Atlantic – but up until now they haven’t been sitting in Ed Miliband’s office.

The Labour leader’s election strategy is based on the cast-iron belief that 2015 will be an Obamastyle “change election”. Indeed, this past week Miliband aides were approvingly circulating an article by Dan Corry for Policy Network which argued that a Labour win required “a strategy that has the current of realism running through it, but that also has an uplifting sense of optimism . . . If the centre left does not give people the hope that through purposeful action we can build growth and a better world, then our appeal will always be less than that of our opponents.”

This is more to do with the politics of convenience than the politics of hope; anything allowing Team Miliband to divert attention from the need for cuts is pounced upon. Yet there is a firm – and dangerous – perception that Miliband’s vaulting rhetoric and expansive “One Nation” vision will inevitably trump David Cameron and his crude “We’re finally back on track. Don’t let Labour wreck it” messaging.

Some around Miliband are alive to the dangers. Jon Cruddas continues to push his “we are the [small c] conservatives now” message patiently, with some effect. The battle lines inside the shadow cabinet are morphing from Old v New Labour to radicals v conservationists.

But Labour is still leaning on too many of Romney’s discredited certainties. That a poor economy would undermine his opponent fatally. That early negative definition could easily be redrawn. Crucially, that hope and change would trump fear and the status quo.

Mitt Romney represented change all right. And it scared people. The American electorate, like the British electorate, has had enough upheaval and uncertainty. What Americans hunger for is a period of stability.

Barack Obama recognised that, which is why he ran successfully as the security candidate. And whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband recognises it will determine which of them receives a congratulatory phone call from the president on election morning, 2015.