Is the hapless Ed Miliband still holding an ace?

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Wednesday, 18 January 2012 - Ben Walker

Ed Miliband is better at being a human being than a leader. But that doesn’t mean he’s doomed yet, says Ben Walker in the first of his weekly columns on politics

Ben Walker Behind The Portcullis

Last Friday night I sat around a poker table with seven friends. As the cards rolled, the topic of Ed Miliband’s leadership came up. Of the other guys there, I reckon that three vote Labour, one or two Tory, and one or two Liberal. In the main, the Labour supporters were the angriest.

The instigator of the conversation – he voted Liberal last time but appears to have abandoned the party along with millions of others following their pact with the Conservatives – described Miliband’s leadership as a “disaster”. On the face of it, he was right. Miliband is regularly bested by David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions – as he was in today’s bout – comes across as nasal and nerdy on TV, and has low visibility with the general public. His political attack lines are regularly pulled apart.

Witness Guido Fawkes’s barbed tweet today:

New line from Miliband is that it’s back to Tory Eighties. The Tories won big majorities in the 1980s. They’ll take that.


Bearpit battles

Whether the views of the twittersphere or my poker-playing friends are fair or not, they are certainly representative, as Miliband is now even unpopular with his own voters.

This is important – one of the chief characteristics of someone who is willing to tell pollsters that he supports a particular party is backing for that party’s leader. If Ed cannot shore up his own core vote then one might reasonably assume that he has little chance of winning over unaligned voters who are key to winning elections. Maybe his number is up?

Ace Up Sleeve

Like many of the low pairs I picked up on Friday, I wouldn’t bet on it. There are many reasons why I think Miliband will survive and may –though this is a guess not a forecast – do better than expected in 2015.

The first reason is mathematical. Even when facing the deeply unpopular, widely disliked, recession-tainted Gordon Brown, the Conservatives failed to win a majority, only landing 50 or so seats more than Labour. The Tories might need a lead as large as five points or more next time to secure a majority. And remember, the country is likely still to be struggling economically and election dates are now fixed – no longer can governments go to the country when the polls best suit them.

The second reason is the advent of the TV debates. Opinion polls, PMQs and even the part of the general election campaign that takes place before the three leaders stand up on TV are little more than a phony war. It remains possible that Miliband comes across as more electable in that format – which does at least allow leaders to express themselves without the endless interruptions and gibes of the PMQs bearpit. This leads me on to my final point.


‘Regular Joe’

In person, Miliband is natural, normal. He remains one the very few politicians – the Tory Damian Green is the only other I can recall – that I can genuinely say I have thoroughly enjoyed sitting down and having a meal or a drink with. Miliband just comes across as a regular Joe. Years before he climbed the political flagstaff, I had a few pints with him. He chatted openly with me and openly chatted up my colleague. I can’t even remember if the three of us talked politics. But Miliband seemed pleasantly human.

Don’t just take my word for it – of the eight poker players on Friday, three others were journalists too. Their testimonies were very similar. “Ed – nice bloke – he remembered who I was!” said one, before going on to advocate his deposition.

The knife-wielders may be proved right. Miliband’s personal affability may never reach the electorate. He may sink at the debates and usher in a Tory landslide. But one thing is for sure: he has more to offer than he is currently showing. The big question for the Labour leader is whether he can make any remaining cards he does have pay.

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