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Poll position defies Labour on both sides of the Border

Ed Miliband hasn't yet lost the 2015 UK General Election.

In the space of days he has only faltered, ever so slightly, in a couple of opinion polls. Given the margin of error attached like disclaimers of liability to these things, Labour's leader might just have suffered a bit of unusually bad luck. The clouds could part at any moment.

Just as certainly, however, Mr Miliband has not cleared a path to Downing Street, far less taken a decisive step in that direction. He,

like his party, is stranded. A majority of those asked still refuse to take him seriously as a leader.

An equivalent group do not rate Labour as managers of the economy. When such opinions combine, the effect tends to be lethal for an election challenger.

Mr Miliband must be a bit puzzled by all of this. Some of those unhelpful polls also show that several of his campaigns-cum-policies are unquestionably popular.

Freeze utility prices; curb private landlords; tackle zero hours contracts; even (though the leader hasn't yet put his name to this one) renationalise the railways? By big margins, those polled approve. According to the snapshots, Mr Miliband's reward, if that's the word, is liable to be the mess and compromise of a hung parliament.

Both an ICM poll for the Guardian and the reputable regular survey carried out for the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft put the Tories two points ahead, eradicating anything Labour gains from a quirky electoral system. A third poll, by YouGov for the Sun, restores Labour's advantage, but only by a single percentage point.

It's not the end of the world, but it's hardly a new dawn. If you sympathise with Mr Miliband, you could observe that he has done well to hold his party together after a bad defeat in 2010. Dispassionately, however, you would have to add that time is running out.

The Coalition parties trumpet an alleged economic recovery; in England, Ukip nibbles at the Labour vote as surely as it is gobbles Tory support. The impression that

Mr Miliband can't win could be as damaging as any single setback.

Consequences follow. First, and obviously, though Scottish opinion bears little resemblance to the mood reported by those "UK" polls, anyone approaching the referendum confident that Labour will return with a new devolution contract (ready finally to eradicate inequality with the matchless powers of Holyrood, no doubt) is heroically optimistic. Put kindly, the chances are receding fast.

Equally, the September vote of itself, win or lose, will have implications for Mr Miliband.

If the decision is Yes, Labour's chances in 2015 are over. Forget "perpetual Tory rule in England": that notion is based on historical ignorance. The idea that Mr Miliband could depend on Scottish Labour MPs to get him into office less than a year from now is untenable.

A temporary expedient, the prospect would alienate English voters utterly. Yet the polls say

the leader needs those MPs. Never mind, you might think: isn't a

No vote likely?

Surely then the 2015 campaign will continue as normal. Surely Mr Miliband's party could expect some referendum credit.

But whose barrage would then be loudest? David Cameron, "the Prime Minister who saved Britain", or the struggling opposition leader who helped a bit? The Scottish Labour conviction that the spoils of a winning Better Together campaign will fall to their party across the UK is dubious in the extreme.

A No result, in any case, would still be as good as it gets.

Perhaps more pertinently, the TNS poll published this morning gives hard numbers. In the space of a month, the No lead has fallen by

four points, to 9%, among those certain to vote. Last September, that lead stood at 22%.

Here, it seems, is another argument Mr Miliband is failing to win. Since none of that impinges on London opinion, set it aside as a courtesy. You could even set aside the problem of how Mr Miliband campaigns for Scotland's support in the referendum while attempting to restore his UK poll lead.

What can he do to persuade the majority in these islands - which

is to say English voters - that their doubts are misplaced? Or, rather, what can he attempt that he has not already attempted?

We can guess that he will not be tacking to the left. Labour already suffers an identity crisis born of the leader's attempts to join the austerity consensus while talking the language of social justice.

He and Ed Balls have struggled to refute the Tory fairy tale that the UK spent itself into economic collapse. Now they tell us only that Labour will spread the pain in a different, kinder, fairer way. Even that has not halted the party's slide in the polls.

As observed, what's called populism has been equally ineffective. Mr Miliband must sometimes wonder what it is that voters want from him. Their outrage at the utility companies is thunderous.

His response is swift. Result: his party's popularity ebbs. The electorate seems to say it wants these matters dealt with, but not by Labour, and not by him.

Mr Miliband meanwhile seems keen to avoid taking on Ukip, as though having decided that it is better to allow the Tories to suffer the assaults of Nigel Farage than risk collateral damage.

In the process, Labour has offered no contest worth the name over the issue of immigration. At best, it has remained silent; at worst, it has pandered to prejudice. As with "Europe", discretion in the

place of valour has found its answer in the polls.

Voters are in no mood for

Mr Miliband. In England, the mainstream flows on what was

once the distant right bank of politics. In Scotland, Labour is unlikely ever again to regard itself complacently as the only natural party of government.

The centre-left, however defined, long ago ceased to be ground it could claim as its own. On both sides of the Border, for very different reasons, the party struggles to compete.

Some Labour people will continue to tell themselves there is still

time for Mr Miliband to retrieve

the situation. They will dismiss

those inconvenient polls as a mere passing show.

The idea that the leader might have reached as high as he will ever reach will not be countenanced. Still the clock ticks. Still there is no answer to the simple question: what now?

If Mr Miliband cannot build a commanding lead against this Coalition Government at this point in a pre-ordained electoral cycle, when might that miracle occur? If the recovery begins to become a reality over the next few months, what remains for Labour?

In these parts there are any number of other facts to consider as the referendum approaches. But if all your hopes reside with a Miliband victory, prepare to lose them.

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