Miliband must improve his personal ratings if he wants to be prime minister

Ed Miliband's poor personal ratings will eventually catch up with the party, as we're starting to see in the polls.

Ed Miliband’s poor personal ratings will eventually catch up with the party, as we’re starting to see in the polls

On the left we like to argue that the focus in politics should always be on the content of a policy rather than the content of a politician’s character. Play the ball and not the man, as the clich√© goes.

And notwithstanding any particularly egregious examples of corruption or indignity, it’s a fairly good guide to casting your vote: don’t vote for the person you’d like to have a pint with, vote for the person with the best set of policies for Britain.

The problem of course is that it doesn’t always work like that. However much we might wish otherwise, people do often vote for the leader they perceive to be more charismatic, authentic or ‘statesmanlike’. It’s another of those areas where idealists must come to terms with reality whilst simultaneously arguing for a politics based on the ideal – in this case that of policy over personality.

This isn’t to say that a solid policy offering can’t offset the unpopularity of individuals. Rather it’s an argument that, however much we might wish otherwise, personality is one of the things that influences how people vote. The Farage factor helps explain the surge of Ukip and it was, I would argue, responsible for the sheer size of Tony Blair’s majority in 1997.

It’s also, I believe, at least partly to blame for Labour losing its lead over the Tories, with two polls this week showing the Conservative party ahead for the first time since Gordon Brown’s tenure as Labour leader. The Tories are now on 33 per cent in the monthly state of the parties poll, with Labour dropping six points since April.

Policies matter hugely, but it’s silly to pretend that, in our celebrity age, people don’t base at least a part of their voting preference on personal factors. And unfortunately this doesn’t bode well for Labour. In almost every measure when set against David Cameron Miliband does worse, with his current rating languishing on minus 32 (compared to Cameron’s minus 12).

There are of course those who says that the popularity of a leader in not particularly important, and that it can be surmounted by a solid policy offering. They will usually throw this graph at you which shows the relative unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher compared to Jim Callaghan at the time of the 1979 election. The graph shows that, despite Callaghan holding a substantial lead over Thatcher in the popularity ratings, the Tories still romped home with a solid majority of 44 seats.

Polls thatcherj

(Graph: Mike Smithson)

So much for the popularity of individuals, eh?

The problem with taking the 1979 election as typical is that it was not, and the relative popularity of Jim Callaghan paled in comparison with the unpopularity of the Labour government. Callaghan may have been personally popular, but he was clearly seen as a man pushing back against the inevitable tide of history, as he himself recognised when he made his now famous comments:

“You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”

While Ed Miliband likes to see himself as a conviction politician in the mould of Margaret Thatcher (and this is to be commended), it’s hard to believe that we live in an epoch making era comparable to the crisis of social democracy in the late 1970s. Unfortunatley it doesn’t yet feel like the tide of history is inexorably flowing against the coalition, especially now the economy is growing and people soon likely to feel a bit better off. Labour can’t wait for the Tories to lose the election; Labour must win it.

It’s incredibly hard to know what Miliband needs to do to improve his personal ratings. We’re straying into the realms of psychology here rather than politics. But what seems increasingly clear is that his personal ratings are a worrying Achilles heel for Labour. The right-wing press are already going after the Labour leader, and with Lynton Crosby at the helm the Tory campaign is only going to get more vicious as we approach the election.

Miliband posterj
Tory attacks are becoming increasingly personal

As much as I don’t like to admit it, politics is about personalities as much as it is about policies. And instead of fighting it, Labour needs to ask some serious questions as to why Ed remains so unpopular, before it’s too late, for the brutal truth is that Miliband is unlikely to be prime minister unless he improves his personal ratings. They will eventually catch up with the party, as we’re beginning to see in the polls.

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