A long time ago in a magazine far, far, away, I was involved in assembling a league of an industry’s top leaders, for whom my readers were asked to vote. One of my more world-weary contacts learned of this, and called me. “Can I vote,” he asked, “for the one who is the least rubbish?”
In essence, that is exactly what the leaders of two main political parties are asking the electorate to do. Neither David Cameron or Ed Miliband’s leadership ratings are in positive territory, and haven’t been for a long time. Yet something has changed – Miliband’s ratings are now a lot less rubbish than Cameron’s.
Leadership ratings (the difference between the percentage of voters who think a leader is doing well and those that believe they are doing badly) are important to psephologists. Many voting behaviour experts use the ratings to test the “hardness” of top-line voting intention. The theory goes that, if one party is ahead on voting intention but its leader is behind on leadership ratings, then much of its pledged vote is soft and may migrate come election day.
While Labour has been posting solid leads in voting intention for months now, Miliband has always lagged Cameron in the leadership ratings. Not any more. The Labour leader now has double point leads over Cameron in these too. His rating is -16 compared to Cameron’s -28. For the record, Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg’s are even worse. They stand at a catastrophic -39. Of the trio, Miliband is now, by some distance, the least rubbish.
So what has been behind this turnaround? Certainly, Miliband’s Commons performances have improved immeasurably in the last six months. I wrote a while ago that he speaks more slowly these days, which tends to be effective. Solid poll leads have boosted his confidence, and it shows. And he has learned what works. Cameron looks terribly uncomfortable whenever he is asked to defend cuts in police or nurse numbers, as Miliband asked in Prime Minister’s Questions today. And when the Premier is asked about NHS reform, he just looks shellshocked. The Budget wasn’t as bad as reported – it contained some good ideas – but it was presented so poorly that it changed the media narrative. The press is now running against the government.
Miliband shouldn’t be complacent. His ratings are still a long way from being positive. A greater proportion of the public still considers him to be doing badly than doing well. Just being least rubbish is not good. The worry for the Conservatives is that, if it continues to the general election, it may be good enough.