Saturday, September 27, 2014

The man is obscuring the message

My take on a less than satisfactory week for Labour's Ed Miliband.  From today's Journal.

While on a personal level I was relieved at the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, there can be no doubt what the more interesting result from a journalistic point of view would have been.

The counterfactual question ‘What would have happened if the Scots had voted Yes?’ will, I suspect, become as moot a debating point in years to come as ‘What would have happened if JFK had lived?’ or ‘What would have happened if Thatcher had lost the Falklands?’

My guess, for what it’s worth is that David Cameron would by now be an ex-Prime Minister, his status as the man who lost the Union having finally provided his backbenchers with the longed-for excuse to send him packing.

His replacement at No 10 would have been William Hague, one of the few Tories to command respect across the spectrum and a convenient stopgap for those seeking to block the claims of Chancellor George Osborne while keeping the seat warm for Boris Johnson.

And Ed Miliband?  Well, I suspect he might soon have been on his way too.  After all, had the Scottish vote gone the other way, it would have been primarily down to his failure to connect with Labour’s traditional supporters north of the border.

It took an eleventh-hour intervention by Gordon Brown to deliver Labour’s voters into the no camp, though the former Prime Minister remains such an unperson in senior party circles that Mr Miliband did not even see fit to thank him in his conference speech this week.

But of course the Scots voted no, and both Mr Cameron and his Labour opposite number lived to fight another day, albeit with their reputations badly scarred.

And with the general election now less than eight months away, it is clear that both men face an uphill battle to convince the public of their Prime Ministerial credentials.

Mr Cameron, of course, has the advantage in this regard in that he is already doing the job, but he seems to be held in growing contempt by an increasing number of otherwise natural Tory voters.

His casual failure this week to observe the first rule of Prime Ministerial conduct – that you don’t drag the Monarch into politics – was seen by some as indicative not just of a lack of gravitas, but a lack of basic intelligence.

As for poor Mr Miliband, everyone I speak to who is unconnected with politics seems to regard him as quite simply the dullest man in Britain.

His keynote conference speech this week was perhaps his last big chance before the election to shift that perception – but sadly for him, it appears to have further cemented it in the public mind.

Perhaps he wasn’t actually trying.   Mr Miliband is smart enough to realise that the he is never going to win on the personality stakes and, rather than attempt to sell himself to the electorate in Tuesday’s speech, he set about trying to sell an idea.

This, encapsulated in a single word, was the idea of togetherness – a refinement of his ‘One Nation’ pitch of two years ago which aimed to build on the success of the ‘Better Together’ campaign in Scotland.

Of itself, it’s a strong message, if one that – like his £2.5bn pledge on funding the NHS - seems aimed more at shoring up Labour’s core vote than reaching out to those of a more rightward-leaning disposition.

But it all got rather lost in Mr Miliband’s torpid manner of delivery, while his failure to mention Labour’s plans for tackling the deficit handed further plentiful ammunition to his opponents.

If renewed faith in the concept of ‘togetherness’ was one upshot of the referendum, another was of course the revival of interest in English devolution.

Mr Cameron’s plans for an English parliament within a parliament met with a predictably dusty response this week from North-East MPs and council leaders this week who realise it will do nothing to devolve power and funding to the Northern regions.

The Labour leader, by contrast, spoke of the need for a wholesale decentralisation of power throughout the country in what in may yet become a major theme of his party’s election campaign.

In this, too, Mr Miliband’s instincts are entirely correct.   But sadly for Labour, the man is currently obscuring the message.

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