100 days until the election – and 5 challenges for Ed Miliband

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There’s a countdown clock on my desk. I bought it when I was a Labour Party organiser, and remember the impending panic as the number of days ticked towards double digits, then single digits, then hours.

Unlike in 2010 though, we’ve known the date of the general election for years. That’s had a profound impact on the way politics has been conducted in Britain and may – in part – have even played into the general sense of malaise amongst the electorate. Certainly Ed Miliband and the Labour Party avoided announcing anything too attention grabbing in the early years of the Parliament (or avoided playing up how significant some announcements were) but since Labour’s big election pledges so far have just been restatements of existing policy, it’s likely there is no big policy “reveal”, more’s the pity.

So in 100 days – a blink of the political eye – the British people will be going to the polls. And the polling overnight suggests that the Tories are moving into the lead with some consistency for the first time in years. With so little time left, what can Miliband do about it? Here are 5 challenges he’ll need to face in the next 100 days. If he passes them, he’ll be Prime Minister:

Activists and the doorstep campaign – Ed Miliband has said that having four million doorstep conversations is Labour’s aim before the election. And campaigning in a way that allows local activists to engage with the electorate is a proven means of winning over disaffected voters and turning out those who are wavering. Of course, as I’ve noted before – if the party was going to run a member focussed election campaign they’ve gone about it the wrong way – but it’s a legitimate means of taking on the Tory money machine. The challenge in these final 100 days is to fire up Labour activists so that every seat that Labour has a real chance of winning is stuffed to the gills with activists each and every week until May. But what is he going to say to fire them up? Fear of the Tories doesn’t motivate people to go out and campaign – the promise of a better Britain under Labour does. Miliband needs a message or a plan that makes the activist heart sing, which leads us to…

A plan for Britain – What would a Labour-run Britain look like? Would the aim be to just look like pre-crash Britain? Or early 2010? Or is the aim to build a stronger, fairer Britain that meets the needs of the future? I’m guessing it’s the last one of those, so let’s hear the tangible examples – not about what a Labour government will do, but what a Labour Britain would be like. People want to know that they can have their own home, a job that pays them well and a safe, secure and healthy environment for their family. Miliband has already said that “Britain can do better than this” – but he needs to say how, because if people aren’t aware of and invested in that vision they won’t for Labour.

Leadership – at present Ed Miliband trails David Cameron on every poll when it comes to leadership. Sure, it’s hard to look like the Prime Minister until you are the Prime Minister (Cameron looked like a total lightweight until he became PM, Blair was mocked as “Bambi” and Thatcher trailed Callaghan in the polls) but it’s clear that Miliband will not be swept into Downing Street by a tidal wave of public clamouring for his leadership. As most of the public start to switch on to politics (I don’t know about you, but my mates have started talking about the election and politics recently) it’s not too late for Miliband to convince people that he can lead the country. But he needs to grab their attention and show some leadership by taking on Cameron and the purveyors of received wisdom. If he does so – and takes the public with him – he’ll look far more capable of leading a nation. But he’ll also be helped if there are…

…Debates – they need to happen, and Miliband needs to put on a good showing when they arrive. But at present, David Cameron seems determined to turn them into a carnival of democracy in which he can hide in plain sight. Having seven people in the TV debates seems silly. Having the Northern Irish parties involved too seems ludicrous. Every single person who watches the debates will be forced to sit through interminable debate and speeches from people they cannot actually vote for. And the Prime Minister will know that in such an environment Miliband looks like just another opponent. So Miliband needs to ensure that he gets his one on one debate with Cameron, and he needs to win it. He’ll need to be more aggressive than is his usual style, but if he can best the Prime Minister on detail (and nobody does detail quite like Miliband) he can show that he’s up to the job after all. Because perhaps the biggest challenge for Labour is showing that the party is…

…Ready for government – Nearly five years as opposition leader means that Ed Miliband is known to the public as an opposition figure, complaining about the government or criticising their actions. They have forgotten that he was once a Labour cabinet member (if they ever knew in the first place) and will question whether he’s ready for government. In fact, Miliband is arguably the most “qualified for government” opposition leader in decades, having spent the best part of a decade working at the highest levels of government under Blair and Brown. Yet that’s not the public perception. He needs to exude power, he needs to show a willingness and a desire to wield that power. He needs people to believe that when he arrives in Downing Street in May he’ll have a team in place that’s ready to go. And he needs the public to believe that he has a battle plan to get to work on the enormous tasks that Britain faces. If he looks or acts like May 7th is an end in itself, he’ll lose. Because election day isn’t a destination for the would-be Prime Minister – it’s the point at which you can start getting things done.

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