Paul Hunter, Head of Research, The Smith Institute
2012 was an eventful year, while it may well be remembered in the UK for the Olympics in terms of our political leaders it may be seen as the year when Ed Miliband put the grumbles about his leadership behind him and started to make some real political headway. At the start of the year, despite gloomy economic outlook and many of the cuts announced (if not implemented) Labour had failed to establish day light between the Conservatives. By the end of the year Labour enjoyed a 10 point lead. The general consensus is that the turning point happened on 22nd March with Osborne’s disastrous, omnishambles budget. Within a month it went from all square for the two main parties to a 10 point lead for Labour. The shift, albeit over a longer period, also occurred in leadership ratings but these figures conceal areas where Ed Miliband will be looking to improve.
In 2012, Cameron’s net ratings fell from -1 in January to -19 in December 2012. Ed Miliband meanwhile improved from -26 to -3. 2012 was a successful year for Miliband the leader who managed to part company in ratings terms with the failed Tory leaders since 1997 (Hague, Howard and IDS). It would be unfair to compare his leadership with Blair’s who had the advantage of coming into power when the country really wanted a change from 18 years of the Conservatives. What is pertinent is that Miliband’s net ratings are comparable to those of Cameron’s at a similar stage of his leadership. While Cameron increased his net satisfaction intermittently by April 2010 it stood at just 3 points. This said, Miliband has still to convince more of the electorate. These are net figures; looking at just those who are satisfied we see that both he and Cameron are level pegging (around 40%). It is also worth noting that ahead of the last general election Cameron was in the mid-50s.
One of the reasons why more people aren’t satisfied with Miliband is that he is not seen as capable of taking tough decisions. He and Labour remain someway behind the Conservative leadership on this. Don’t be surprised at all if this is a key battleground for 2013 with Cameron trying to make Miliband look weak on decision-making and party discipline. Although the clause 4 moment (or Cameron’s slightly less fundamental husky/hoody hugging) is much exaggerated, we might expect to see Miliband announce something counter-intuitive to be seen as strong and win favour with electorate. Or Miliband may choose to look strong by taking on vested (elite) interests.
Cameron’s strategy will probably be more defensive because he needs to do much less at the next election – hold on to marginal Lab-Con seats and pick up around 20. If the last six months are to go by we are likely to see a more defensive, negative approach from the Conservatives. Traditional Conservative rhetoric on welfare and immigration can sometimes be popular (whether it is enough is another matter) and if successful could make Labour look like bleeding heart liberals unable to step up to the plate. This of course is what the Conservative’s hoped for with their elephant trap of a bill on uprating welfare payments.
As the shadow boxing of the last couple of years comes to an end and the real bout for victory at the next election begins how Miliband fares on strength will be crucial. The question now is what issue and group he chooses to take on – and not just in rhetoric but also policy.