Thursday 9 April 2015

On Weaponising Ed Miliband

Let's take a moment to reflect. Shed your political preferences and ideological preconceptions and scan an unjaundiced eye over the respective election campaigns for the parties Conservative and Labour. Who does the polling momentum at moment appear to be with? Where are the approval figures going? What party has announced a raft of constructive policies? Who's winning the ground war? Who's employing social media most effectively? Who is having more success cutting through? And looking at the scaremongering both sides necessarily indulge, of the two which campaign appears the most tendentious, desperate, and abusive?

I ask these questions because I'm convinced it's not my many biases telling me that my party is having a good campaign, and the Tories are, well, having a less than stellar time. Be it leaders' non-debates, pledges to cut social security even further, or going all sixes and sevens over Labour's NonDoms announcement, they're looking every inch like the less of the sum of their parts. Despite all that hedge fund cash and dodgy donations laundered through their private members' clubs, it just goes to show you can't put a lipstick on a turd.

Take this morning's knockabout, for example. Michael Fallon, the former defence secretary and today's Dave stand-in attacked Ed Miliband for "stabbing his brother in the back" and worse is "willing to stab the country in the back". Hmmm. Fallon should be careful. Associating "backstabbing" with politicians of a Jewish background doesn't have a great historical track record. Anyway, the Tories attack line is that because the SNP are unilateralists, Labour are only too happy to ditch Trident replacement in exchange for the keys to Number 10. Not that I'm interested in defending Trident, nevertheless both parties have long indicated that it's a red line in coalition negotiations, it would not be a barrier to deals that fall short of this. The politics hacks know this. The Scottish public certainly know this. And anyone paying attention to politics knows this. The Tories then have launched a deliberately cynical attack they know not to be true in the hope Ed will look like an unprincipled chancer. And if it hoodwinks the tiny number for whom retention of nuclear weapons is a deal maker, so much the better.

It was a clumsy attack. It was a desperate attack. One man, however, disagrees. Dan Hodges discerns a clever plan behind Fallon's remarks. They're looking to weaponise Ed Miliband, to turn the election into a question of his character, to focus on the choice between him and a vaporous Dave. Focus groups and years of grim approval ratings tell them this has to work. Because, let's face it, when your coming manifesto promises little more than demented and unnecessary cuts, a possible EU exit, and precious little else the Tories have already lost the politics. After all, negative politics won in Scotland, so why not here too? Why not now? So this, for Dan - and the anonymous briefers always seeking his ear - is about making Ed Miliband appear a credible figure, as someone who could be PM. And what the Tories are banking their entire strategy on is voters will look at that and balk.

Because key Tories believe this to be true, it has to be true. There are two problems with this. First, people don't like negative campaigning. Most don't even like watching politicians argue. The Conservative strategy can be as clever clever as Dan thinks, what matters for the great many people who don't follow politics closely but will be voting next month is that Labour are being seen to stand up for the NHS, a higher minimum wage, tax cuts for small business, and tax crackdowns on the super rich; and the Tories are slamming Ed for looking silly. Talk about not seeing the electorate for Westminster point scoring. To think the Tories have forked out good money for this incisive strategy.

The second point is things change. What was commonsense yesterday becomes an absurd anachronism today. Contrary to received hack wisdom, Dan's included, it does appear that the more the general public see of Ed, the more they like him. It's only one poll, but for the first time ever Survation have shown his approval rating overtake Dave's. If the Tories want to throw more mud at the Labour leader, that just gives him the opportunity to look like a man of integrity and a man of ideas, things that will shift the election more in our direction. The Tories are dumb enough and stupid enough to do so. The Tories still have advantages on economic competency ratings and Dave looking 'more prime ministerial (good job, as that's his sole talent), but these too can change.

With an election moving in Labour's direction, with them doing very well in the marginals, with a leader who's becoming an asset the Tories cannot but cling to the dogmatic certainties cultivated over five, long years. Handing prominent Conservatives advice to make personal attacks on Ed Miliband isn't a sign of anything clever. It underlines their political bankruptcy and eviction of anything resembling strategic sense. So yes, by all means, please continue.


Phil said...

Up to now Miliband's greatest personal strengths (intellect, self-confidence and resolution) have largely been cancelled out by his greatest weakness (he's a lousy liar). PR people (like Cameron) make convincing politicians for the same reason that actors make good game show hosts: what they're good at is saying meaningless lines & infusing them with emotion and sincerity. Miliband can't do that, which means that he looks like he's faking when he trots out an obvious 'line' - which in turn, very unfairly, makes it look as if there's nothing behind the unconvincing front. (In fact it's the people whose spiel is most convincing who are most likely to be hollow, cynical chancers (e.g. Cameron, Johnson), but that's psychology for you.)

When Miliband gets to speak on his own account, and in particular when he gets to think on his feet, the strengths start to come through. (I still smile when I think of his reply to Paxman's "North London geek" comment - "Who cares?" It's such a good reply because it's not just a rhetorical question - who does care, and why?) Hopefully there will be more opportunities like that, and people will take note.

Vinyl Miner said...

The reality is Ed is normal and the rest are cardboard cutouts.

asquith said...

Being Goldenhill's resident weirdo, freak, etc etc, and I'd hope to be called a decent human being, I actually like Miliband more as a result of his monstering. If I voted on on personality I'd be one of his most stalwart supporters (unfortunately for him, I prefer to focus on policies, and find his unfeasible).

I also don't for one second imagine MilID would be any better. If he achieved anything during his time as a government minister, I'm not aware of it. He does actually do good work in Syria, but that's all the reason for him to not pointlessly take MiliE's job now when he has other things to be getting on with.

And as for MiliE's assumption of the leadership being some form of fratricide, why shouldn't he go for a job that he thinks he can do better than anyone else? That makes no sense whatsoever, and betrays a rather odd assumption that MiliD was in some sense entitled to the job, which will come as news to those who abhor his support for the illegal war in Iraq, and other heinously illiberal deeds.

You will recall that I was one of the first liberals to rate him as a skilful operator and highly possible winner, I've never actually liked him but he does command respect. He, and for that matter Cleggover, (whom readers doubtless saw on Central last night), have what it takes to withstand what is unimaginable.

My views count for little since I have no doubt the vast majority think the exact opposite, but nonetheless it is where I am.

MiliE will of course be on the same programme, I think it's called Tonight, in the days to come, along o' Sturgeon and Farrago on other days.

BTW I got doorstopped by Smeeth's team a couple of days ago. I said I'd think about it, which I won't, but which seemed like the quickest way of politely dismissing them when I had no wish to engage them in conversation.

asquith said...

They, furthermore, may well wish to criticise Labour's strategy for electing leaders, and criticise the process by which MiliE "won" on this ground. But the Michael Fallons of this world haven't done this.

Also the "subtle" antisemitism is presumably an American import, where conservatives will tell you all about "Real America", "George Soros", "Saul Alinsky", "Ivy League", "East Coast Elites" and other ways to not quite say what their voters are meant to pick up via dogwhistle. Which is doubtless why Jewish Americans unfailingly vote for Democrats, including two landslides for Obama.

BCFG said...

I don't quite get the level of optimism of the general election.

When I look at the polls I see the Tories on 35%, the liberals on 8% and UKIP on 16%. When I add those together I get near 60% for the right wing.

So much for the death of conservatism!

Ken said...

I've nicked (with acknowledgement) the image for a post on Ralph and Ed Miliband on my own blog.