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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.