Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Does Labour's 'Ed problem' really matter?

Turning away from the epochal and era-defining issue of Scottish independence for a moment, normal politics is struggling to make itself heard. And nowhere more so in yesterday's party conference speech by Labour leader Ed Miliband (above), which by common consent (especially among those in the hall) was a bit of a dud - especially when compared to his last two efforts, which were rightly and heavily praised. Wordy, worthy and solidly likeable, nowhere was there an ounce of the charisma or sense of powerful, election-shaping personality that one might have looked for in a man 'inevitably' on his way to Downing Street.

But 'Public Policy and the Past' thinks that our yearning for such 'powerful' leadership may be misplaced. Rare are the pre-election speeches that really make the weather. Harold Wilson's 1963 Scarborough address, summoning up 'the white heat of technology' in Labour's support, is still evoked as the model. It's still discussed and pored over as one of the most important speeches of the second half of the twentieth century - before its time as it in the end proved to be. And Tony Blair's 1996 appeal to 'education, education, education' as the nation's potential salvation was another humdinger, all sweat and sincerity. Those are speeches, that's for sure.

But for every Wilson or Blair there's a David Cameron, whose rather forgettable desire to 'get Britain back on its feet' disappeared as soon as the ink was dry in 2009. Heath and Thatcher delivered similarly anodyne conference speeches in Opposition, but they were soon in No. 10. So there's no need to shout and scream on your barnstorming way to general admiration, Gordon Brown-style (much as Ed could do with that as well). It's a trap and a delusion to believe that there's only one style of leadership - or that voters really care about which bits of the speech Ed did or did not forget. They know he's likeable but not-very-inspiring. They've long known that. Maybe a pledge to protect the NHS and the implication that Labour might go easier on spending cuts will appeal to them anyway.

So we're beginning to ask ourselves: do Ed's presential problems really matter? Labour's economic credibility gap and the unpopularity of its leader have long been 'priced in' to their chances at the next General Election, now only seven and a half months away. And yet the party leads, in the latest opinion polls, by four, six and seven points.

It's an intriguing question, for contemporary historians and political scientists alike. The main relief? At least we'll soon find out.

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