For the third weekend running, Labour’s woes remain the story. In his Sunday Mirror column, John Prescott declares that the party has “massively failed” to get its message across and reminds everyone how it was a different story when he was manning the shop. He writes: “We always planned well ahead with our news grid and during summer I met every day with my team looking at the stories and messages we were going to deliver…I joked with Tony that our poll rating always went up by the time I finished summer watch.”
Elsewhere, Maurice Glasman takes to the Mail on Sunday to deliver his mordant judgement on the party’s recent performance: “At the very time when Labour should be showing the way ahead, it gives the impression of not knowing which way to turn. When the Labour battle bus should be revving up, it is parked in a lay-by of introspection.”
Then there’s Caroline Flint in the Observer, who, in response to Miliband’s tanking approval ratings, notes that leaders don’t need to be popular for their parties to win elections. She’s right. History shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as “the best prime minister” but that didn’t stop the Conservatives winning a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson’s personal lead over Ted Heath (a 51% approval rating compared to one of 28% for Heath) didn’t prevent Labour suffering a decisive defeat. But it’s not necessarily helpful for shadow cabinet ministers to give the impression of being resigned to Miliband’s unpopularity.
At the same time, the increasingly impressive Tory attack machine has swung into action again, with Chris Grayling responding to Miliband’s cost of living gambit by declaring that “Labour’s borrowing would add an extra £2,960 in debt to every working family in Britain. The more you dig, the more their rhetoric on the cost of living rings hollow.” Grayling’s economics might be risible (as Keynes’s paradox of thrift proves) but his attack, which will form the centrepiece of a new Tory offensive this week, is a reminder that it won’t be enough for Labour to tell voters that they’re “worse off” under the Conservatives. They’ll also need to convince them that they’d be better off under Labour. So long as the opposition continues to lose the economic argument, that remains a formidable challenge.
One consequence of all of this is that the bar is being raised ever higher for Miliband’s conference address. Last year, a no notes speech and a politically dexterous slogan (“one nation”) was enough to send the lobby away impressed but this time he’ll need to announce policies that, as Andy Burnham put it, “knock the others off the pitch”. I’m told that the theme of the speech will be living standards, with energy and housing two of the candidates for big announcements. What is certain is that it will need to be a policy strong enough to shift the narrative back in Labour’s favour (as Osborne’s inheritance tax pledge in 2007 did for the Tories).
Like David Cameron, Miliband is a leader who performs best when his back is against the wall. But as Labour’s summer of discontent continues, the task ahead of him is looking increasingly daunting.