Thursday, 13 November 2014

People will like Ed's policies. But they're looking for something more.

Most of us go through life trying to reconcile the rational part of our brain with our emotional gut instinct. You know you really should go for that run, but something tells you that it’s going to be very cold and unpleasant out there tonight and it just isn’t going to happen.

Ed Miliband really should be the next Prime Minister.All the electoral arithmetic is in his favour because of the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system and the concentration of his traditional voters in towns and cities. He can actually win an outright majority with a lower share of the popular vote than you might imagine. Probably somewhere in the mid-30s. Not too much of an ask after five years of austerity, you might think.

Ed has come up with a decent set of policy proposals too. In his speech and subsequent emails today, he outlines plans to reverse the Tory tax cuts for millionaires, to freeze electricity bills, reform the banks and raise the minimum wage. Amen to all that.

But there’s a problem.Although he is set to win on paper. many people don't feel it in their water. This includes, of course, three quarters of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which is why we’ve had such a dose of the pre-election heebie-jeebies over the past 10 days.

Sometimes, the whole can be less than the sum of its parts. Ed Miliband is the guy who ticks all the boxes when you present him as a future boyfriend. He has a steady job, no criminal convictions, minds his Ps and Qs and seems very respectable. But your mum thinks you can do better. It’s not that she can fault him on any specifics. It’s just that he’s lacking a certain something and she isn’t able to put her finger on it.

Politics is absolutely brutal like this. Miliband is a decent man with worthy motives, but when he says he sees a Prime Minister staring back at him in the mirror, some cynics may start to wonder whether pressure of work has delayed his annual check-up with the optician.

There’s a story being spun by his minders right now, which goes something like this: Ed is the victim of a concerted smear campaign because he is challenging vested interests. Here’s a man who threatened the media with regulation, told the energy companies they’d have to freeze their prices and that he’d crack down on banking excesses. No wonder, his supporters say, he’s become a scapegoat.

In pursuing this argument, Ed’s supporters are in danger of treating the electorate as fools. While I’m not naive enough to think that these vested interests are praying for a Labour victory, I don’t for one moment believe they see Miliband as the slightest threat.

Take the freezing of energy prices for 18 months, for instance. Some big players in the sector have already adjusted their charges to take account of the possible imposition of a new regime. And they are so profitable that they can happily wait until 2017 for another price hike. The proposed regulation of the press after Leveson failed to materialise and I don’t for one moment think that Labour would prioritise this after a victory in 2015.

Think back to 1997. Tony Blair won the support of the media and the wider business establishment despite pledging a windfall tax on the ‘excess profits of the privatised utilities’. Funny how he could tackle vested interests and win a landslide victory, isn’t it? 

Looking back at the manifesto of 1997 though, one of the most striking things about it is actually the positive feel of all the pledges and policies. It was highly aspirational in a motherhood and apple pie kind of way. Contrast this with the first four promises on my email from Miliband today, which are to ‘scrap, scrap, scrap and reverse’ things that the Tories have done.

Ed is still too much speaking to the core Labour supporter who hates everything the coalition stands for. Sadly, it’s the strategy that brought defeat to Labour in the 1980s rather than the strategy which brought them victory in the 1990s. So while my rational brain keeps telling me that common sense will prevail and the maths will work itself out, a butterfly menagerie is busily flapping away in my stomach.