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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Don't blame Jeremy Corbyn - polls show only Tory voters could have kept us in the EU

Despite deep divisions in the Labour Party, it's the Tory voters who let Remain down. 

The Labour Party was already having enough difficulty keeping itself together without a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union coming along. The party was reeling from the election of a leader who was not only well to the left of most of his parliamentary colleagues but also did not obviously have the personal skills needed to do the job. However, the referendum on the EU compounded the party’s difficulties by exposing another fissure - between its traditional white working class supporters and its public sector socially liberal middle class ones (including the vast bulk of its parliamentary party). In combination the two divisions threaten to tear the party part.

Elections in the UK are usually about the left and right of politics, whether the government should do a little more or a little less. On this Labour’s working and middle class supporters tend to be at one with each other. They all, albeit to varying degrees, want the state to do more, to curb the excesses of the capitalist market and produce more equitable outcomes. So long as political conflict focuses on this issue they are a viable electoral coalition.

However, the EU referendum was not about the size and the role of the British state. It was about what Britain’s relationship should be with an intergovernmental organisation that epitomises one of the major social and economic phenomena of our time, globalisation. This phenomenon has had significant economic and cultural consequences, including, not least, substantial flows of migrants in search of work in an internationalised labour market. 

Young graduates vs working class pensioners

Among young university graduates this development is regarded as an opportunity rather than a problem. It is the kind of world in which they have grown up. They have acquired the skills required to compete in the global market place. Indeed, they may well become migrants themselves, deploying their valued skills in Berlin or Barcelona. Meanwhile the experience of university, in which international students are often commonplace, has led them to embrace the cultural diversity that immigration brings.

This world looks very different to many an older white working class voter, who left school at the earliest possible opportunity. They are used to a world in which everyone speaks the same language and shares a common set of cultural values.  As a result, the relatively high levels of immigration that the UK has experienced in recent years is regarded as a threat. They want back the country in which they grew up and in which they once felt comfortable. Meanwhile, they suspect that the inflow of migrants helps explain why they have seen little if any increase in their living standards.

With questions of immigration and identity at its core, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU inevitably cut across Labour’s electoral coalition. Those with different educational experiences voted very differently. According to a large poll conducted on polling day by Lord Ashcroft, graduates and those still in education voted in favour of remaining in the EU by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, while those whose educational experience did not extend beyond secondary school voted by 65 per cent to 35 per cent to leave. Similarly, in their on the day exercise YouGov found that graduates voted in favour of Remain by 68 per cent to 32 per cent, while those whose highest qualification is a GCSE or its equivalent voted by 70 per cent to 30 per cent in favour of Leave. The party’s middle class supporters were in a very different place on this issue than their more working class ones.

White voters vs ethnic minorities

Just to compound Labour’s difficulties, there was a clear ethnic division in the referendum too. Those from an ethnic minority background, who have never shown much inclination to back UKIP, seemingly found the Leave side’s emphasis on reducing immigration relatively unattractive. Lord Ashcroft estimates that only 32 per cent of those from an ethnic minority background voted to Leave, compared with 53 per cent of those who regard themselves as ‘white’. Consequently, another part of Labour’s electoral coalition, Britain’s ethnic minority population, were also on the other side of the referendum divide from the party’s traditional white working class base.

Against this backdrop it was, in truth, hardly surprising that the highest level of support for Leave was in predominantly working class local authority areas in the North and Midlands of England where Labour tends to be relatively strong.  In the 2014 European Parliament election, Labour won on average 28 per cent of the vote in those local authority areas where less than 22 per cent have a degree, whereas the party won just 20 per cent in areas where more than 32 per cent are graduates. Now in the referendum, on average Leave won as much as 64 per cent of the vote in those places that fall into the former group, but as little as 42 per cent in the latter. A t the same time, no less than 71 of the 90 local authority areas in England and Wales with fewest graduates are in the North of England and the Midlands, whereas just 13 of the 83 areas with most graduates do so.

In short, the principal explanation for the fact that Leave did so well in the West Midlands (59 per cent), the East Midlands (59 per cent), the North East (58 per cent), and in Yorkshire & Humberside (58 per cent) in particular lies in the demography of Leave support and of those regions rather than in any particular failings on the part of the Labour party. Indeed, once we have taken the demographic character of an area into account, if anything Remain tended to do rather better the stronger Labour was locally. For example, amongst those council areas in England and Wales with relatively few graduates Leave won 62 per cent of the vote on average in places where Labour won over 25 per cent of the vote in 2014, compared with 67 per cent where Labour won less than 15 per cent.

Meanwhile, it was, of course, the other parts of its coalition, the socially liberal middle class and the country’s ethnic minority population, that ensured that London was the one part of England and Wales that did vote decisively in favour of remaining  (by 60 per cent to 40 per cent).  No less than 24 of the 33 council areas in the capital have a population in which over 32 per cent are graduates, while no less than 27 of the 41 most ethnically diverse parts of England and Wales are located in the capital. Again demography was crucial.

Corbyn not to blame

Against this backdrop it was hardly surprising that across Britain as a whole only around two-thirds (63 per cent according to Lord Ashcroft, 65 per cent as estimated by YouGov) of those who voted Labour in 2015 voted to remain in the EU. The party was never likely to achieve much more than this. And at least the party’s coalition did not fracture as badly as the one that backed David Cameron a year ago; well under half (42 per cent according to Lord Ashcroft, 39 per cent, YouGov) of those who voted Conservative in 2015 voted to remain. The real source of the Remain side’s difficulties was the failure of David Cameron to bring his own voters on board.

Yet it is Jeremy Corbyn who is taking the blame for the inside much of the Labour party for the Remain side’s failure, as the party’s pre-existing division about his leadership interacts with the division made manifest by the referendum. Of course, MPs are entitled to make their own judgement about Mr Corbyn’s capabilities for the job, a judgement that his performance in the referendum appears to have reinforced and which they may feel has become more pressing given that the outcome of the referendum makes an early general election more likely. But in truth there is little in the pattern of the results of the referendum to suggest that Mr Corbyn was personally responsible for Remain’s defeat. The referendum outcome looks more like a pretext for `an attempt to secure Mr Corbyn’s removal than a reason.

However, the referendum does raise questions for all wings of the Labour party, including above all its parliamentary party in which middle class graduates predominate. As we have argued before, unless the party can persuade the less well-off in Britain that social democracy can tame the tiger of globalised capitalism so that their interests and concerns – cultural as well as economic – can be met, it is at risk of losing their support. We have already in Scotland how the politics of identity can cause much of Labour’s working class support to melt away, and there is a risk that a similar politics could have the same effect in England should UKIP be able to sustain a post-referendum purpose and appeal. 

Certainly, there was little in the Remain side’s case – as espoused by Labour as well as the Conservatives – that met those concerns. There was, in truth, no answer on how to deal with immigration, while there was little attempt to explain how the UK’s membership of the EU could be used to advance the economic interests of the less well of. Instead the only reason offered for voting to remain was the allegedly deleterious consequences of leaving. Telling working class people that they have to put up with the consequences of globalisation is simply not good enough. Labour needs to take note – whoever leads it.
            
John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for IPPR’s journal Juncture