How the Labour leadership misunderstand two of their biggest problems

Even before Ed Miliband entered the stage last Tuesday afternoon to give his conference speech, a few of us knew there would be no big surprise. A source close to the leader had earlier told a group of assembled journalists and activists that they wanted to focus on the “big six” national goals, not a surprise that would grab all the attention.

Ed Miliband C4

Understandably, the assembled audience came out disappointed. The media, who needed a fresh story since the six goals had already been briefed the night before, focused on the ‘missing’ paragraphs. No one left with what they were hoping for.

Ignore the frenetic media noise around party conferences and its obvious that the fundamentals haven’t changed: Labour is still likely to be the largest party or have a slim majority after the next election. But this episode is a good illustration of how the Labour leadership keep misunderstanding their intended audiences.

The Labour party leadership broadly face two problems: 1) people don’t understand what Ed Miliband stands for and seem hesitant to place their faith in him; 2) more Britons trust the economic competency of the Conservatives than Labour. In both cases the leadership has misunderstood the nature of the problem and reacted predictably.

Take the first issue. Ed Miliband has a personal ratings problem that shows up in all the national polling. Most don’t hate him or dislike him, but Britons just don’t understand what he stands for, so they dismiss him. Miliband’s team seem to have decided that they need to inform the public of what he stands for is by unveiling reams of policy. Unsurprising then, that the final conference speech before the election offered us a six-point-ten-year plan that bored even Miliband’s most faithful supporters. Labour has now offered more policy than possibly any opposition at this stage.

This seems the obvious response if you are surrounded by highly intelligent policy wonks, but it doesn’t solve the problem because lack of policy is not the problem. The problem is that the British public don’t pay attention to policy but to symbolism. They understand the mettle of politicians by how they look, what they do and what they symbolise. They want big ideas in big colours painted with broad brush-strokes. What Miliband keeps offering is the kind of detail and earnest rhetoric that bores the media, let alone engages the public. It engages people like us but we aren’t the majority.

This isn’t necessarily a failure of the media but of imagination. A political leader needs to understand how the media works and how the public consume information, and be able to spark the right debates through a mixture of symbolism and policy. But having told everyone that ‘Miliband doesn’t do stunts’, his team have stayed in the comfort zone of a never-ending stream of speeches that do little to improve his ratings.

The economic competency problem is similar. Labour was never going to regain the trust of people on the economy so quickly after presiding over the biggest crash in 80 years. But the Labour leadership looked at the polling on economic competency and, prodded on by the press, agreed that the gap could only be closed by sounding “tough” on spending. Such a strategy would bring them praise from the press while closing the gap, they decided.

For the last three years Ed Balls has talked of nothing else but the “difficult decisions” to come on spending cuts. Talk of austerity from the Shadow Chancellor and his team has been relentless. And yet, the polling on economic competency has widened in favour of the Tories.

Even more predictably, press commentators that demanded he submit to austerity haven’t given Balls an inch of praise, and keep slamming Labour for not matching Osborne to the hilt. The media’s attitude to Labour on austerity has been akin to Eurosceptics Tories with Cameron: forever demanding more concessions without giving an inch. But Balls and his team are locked into that strategy, even if it makes little economic sense, because coming out of the comfort zone feels too difficult.

Of course battling against austerity was going to be difficult, but again they have misunderstood the public. The reason why many Britons, including Labour supporters, still don’t trust Ed Balls with the economy is because he hasn’t given them sufficient reason to change their minds. He has half-heartedly offered some complicated, watered-down and technocratic speeches on economic reform, and that’s about it. Ask anyone on the street what Labour would do to prevent another crash, reform banks or create full employment and they would draw a blank. It’s no wonder that Balls’ talk of austerity hasn’t closed the gap.

As the journalist Ian Dunt recently put it, “Ed Ball’s conservative vision has killed off Miliband’s radicalism”. By misunderstanding their problems and sticking to what they are comfortable with, both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are failing in satisfying their critics, inspiring their supporters or even communicating with the public. If this carries on until May next year then the electoral advantage Labour has held on to could easily evaporate.

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