Why do the Miliband haters carp and groan? He’s the favourite – the rest is noise

Political punditry in the UK continues to be leader-centred and personality-obsessed, but does what the commentators have to say have any effect on how we vote?

In recent years, Nate Silver has become something of a cult figure. The American statistician is “a new kind of political superstar”, according to the Observer, “the poster boy of political predictions”, in the words of British GQ, and one of Time’s “100 most influential people in the world”. In the 2008 US presidential election, Silver correctly predicted the results of 49 out of 50 states; in 2012 he got all 50.
 
In July this year, however, he left the New York Times – where his blog had accounted for a fifth of the traffic to the paper’s website in the week of the 2012 presidential election. Why? “Nate disrupted the traditional model of how to cover politics,” wrote Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, in July. “His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that the Times specialises in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or ‘punditry’, as he put it, famously describing it as ‘fundamentally useless’ .”
 
You might expect me, as a political pundit, to recoil from Silver’s approach but I can’t. Consider the recent media coverage of Ed Miliband. Taking their cue from critics within the Labour Party such as the former deputy prime minister John Prescott and Miliband’s former “guru” Maurice Glasman, commentators and lobby correspondents have lined up to pronounce the Labour leader a failure, a loser and a liability. “Ed Miliband is a pale shadow of Tony Blair” (Times). “Ed Miliband must be such a comfort to David Cameron” (Daily Express). “Miliband flounders” (Daily Mail). This is political punditry at its most “useless” – shallow, superficial, speculative and, worst of all, fact-free.
 
For a start, most people don’t have a clue who Glasman or even Prescott is. The typical voter struggles to identify any politician other than the PM, the leader of the opposition, the Mayor of London and, perhaps, the Chancellor. Politicians and pundits inside the Westminster bubble refuse to recognise this inconvenient (and ego-pricking) truth. 
 
What matters is public opinion, which hasn’t budged significantly over the past three years, let alone the past three weeks. The numbers don’t lie: Labour has had a poll lead over the Tories from the moment Miliband was elected leader in September 2010, peaking at 16 points in May and September 2012. Michael Ashcroft’s extensive poll of 9,000 voters in 213 marginals in April this year showed, in the Tory peer’s own words, that “Ed Miliband’s party is ahead in all of the clusters of seats in which it will challenge sitting Tories at a general election”.
 
As Silver wrote in the London Evening Standard in April: “It’s almost certain [the Tories] would lose an election if one were held tomorrow.” Nonetheless, the Miliband haters continue to carp and complain, moan and groan.
 
Labour’s lead over the Tories just isn’t big enough, says the party’s doom-and-gloom brigade, and has often fallen below the 6-point mark. So? As YouGov’s Anthony Wells confirms, on a uniform swing and assuming the Liberal Democrats get 15 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives need a lead of 7 points to secure a Commons majority, whereas Labour needs just 2.
 
Second, the Blairites, in particular, are quick to point out that Labour may lead the Conservatives on voting intention but the party trails far behind on the economy. Again – so? The Tories led Labour by a whopping 22 points on the specific issue of “managing the economy” in April 1997. Yet we all know what happened the following month.
 
Third, Miliband’s personal approval ratings are far worse than Cameron’s, wail his critics. So? On the eve of the Tories’ 1979 landslide, voters preferred “Sunny” Jim Callaghan to the opposition leader, Margaret Thatcher, by a 19-point margin. 
 
This last point is worth considering in detail. How much do leaders, and their approval ratings, matter? Not much, say some of Britain’s leading political scientists.
 
“In parliamentary democracies, at least, voters’ evaluations of leaders have not as yet become a substitute for their evaluations of parties in deciding how to vote,” wrote John Curtice of Strathclyde University in a 2003 paper entitled “Elections as Beauty Contests: Do the Rules Matter?”. “Becoming prime minister still primarily involves persuading voters to like your political allies rather than just yourself.” 
 
Vernon Bogdanor of King’s College London agrees. “[T]he British people have tended to show a marked distrust of charismatic leaders – in peacetime at least,” he wrote in a New Statesman essay in October 2011. “Winston Churchill did not manage to win a general election until the third time of trying, in 1951, and even then the Conservatives secured fewer votes than Labour . . .”
 
Yet political punditry in the UK continues to be leader-centred and personality-obsessed. Is Miliband weak? Is Cameron strong? Can Clegg survive?
 
I have to admit, it makes life much more interesting for a columnist. Who wants to write dry pieces about psephology? Or policy? Or the state of the economy? Drawing together off-the-record criticisms of party leaders from their anonymous colleagues makes for much more readable copy – though it has little impact on elections.
 
One of the reasons the other US political journalists had it in for Silver was that he undermined their conventional wisdom that the 2012 election was “too close to call”. (Obama beat Mitt Romney by 332 votes to 206 in the electoral college.) I’m not saying it won’t be close here in Britain come 2015, but the simple fact is that Cameron’s Conservatives have an electoral mountain to climb. Miliband’s Labour Party doesn’t.
 
Everything else is noise.
 
Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted
Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.