Whatever you think of Miliband’s polling, the fact remains: you can’t govern on hope

Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband

Would the British public prefer a Labour majority or a Tory majority in May? A Labour one. But would they rather Ed Miliband or David Cameron was prime minister? Ah. David Cameron, I’m afraid.

According to polling by ComRes for ITV, people would prefer a Labour majority by 51% to 49%, but would prefer a Cameron second term to a Miliband first by 55% to 45%. It’s the New Labour legacy: the voters are triangulating the politicians.

How can you respond to numbers like that? They can fit anyone’s agenda. The left and right of the party can both use it as proof in their claim that Ed Miliband needs to be just that little bit more like them. Election victory, naturally, follows.

It’s certainly not the worst personal polling I’ve seen for Labour’s leader. Perhaps it just shows that Miliband is doing an alright job. He is not outpolling his party the way Cameron has done since he became Tory leader 10 years ago, but neither has he had to deal with as toxic a brand. Some rehabilitation of the party’s name had to be done, but mainly he has had to keep the ship steady and, largely, he has done that. When grumbles start to appear about the party since 2010, wise old heads dole out the same rebuke: we should be grateful that the Labour Party has not eaten itself after a heavy election defeat.

Look at last week’s LabourList survey: a third of readers would judge his leadership of the party as “OK”. Unsurprisingly, having to work so hard to avoid upsetting so many can be a tentative game, and Miliband is already fairly tentative by nature.

Miliband’s stint in government is helpful for an opposition leader. He knows how difficult the day-to-day job of running a country can be; the logistical difficulties, the bureaucratic roadblocks, the unforeseen consequences. It means he has an idea of what he can practically pursue when in power – and what he can truthfully promise now.

What none of this does is breed excitement, and as bits of Labour support start to ebb away – we now appear to have hit a crossover point where the Tories hold a slender lead – people start to get itchy feet. Whereas the advice to “be more radical” has now been replaced by the equally platitudinous call to “offer hope”.

This week, certainly, “hope” has become a catch-all electoral strategy to fight off a Green threat, ape Syriza and even bring an end to austerity.

But you can’t govern on hope. Hope does not feed the hungry, or build homes. We cannot simply stand in the storm and promise the rainbow.

While the new Jerusalem could be a very enticing offer over the next 99 days, failure to bring it to fruition will undoubtedly lead to further punishment from voters over the years that follow. You do not need to look far for the proof; politics is littered with the corpses of movements that over-promised and under-delivered. The Liberal Democrats could soon be a fine case in point. False hope is a serial killer in this business.

Yes, it is frustrating. A coalescing factor of the Labour Party has always been a desire to change in society in big ways. And, of course, we all have our problems with policy, strategy, and performance – they’ve been identified over the pages here plenty – but a failure to offer enough hope is unfair.

Hope springs eternal, as someone with a familiar name once wrote. Labour governments do not.

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