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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.