Would you rather this country was led by a man who is out of touch, arrogant and smug or someone who is out of his depth, weak and out of touch? That, according to the voters themselves, is the choice they’ll have to make at the next election. It is an illustration of just how cynical and despairing people are about politics and politicians.
Margaret Thatcher may have been, as the bien-pensants put it, divisive. But she had her partisans as well as her detractors. It often seems like modern politicians only have the latter. Indeed, when the electorate of 2013 were asked what phrases they associated with Thatcher they replied ‘determined’, ‘ruthless’ and ‘stands up for Britain’.
Today, the politicians who prosper are the ones who go out of their way not to be like politicians. One political fixer who has sat through endless focus groups in the last two years calls this the Boris Johnson effect. He notes that ‘being caught on a zip-wire should be disastrous. But at the moment anything that marks you out as not another politician is helpful.’ Nigel Farage is clearly channelling this advice. He canvasses in outfits that would give a Tory spin doctor a heart attack, tweeds and cords or City pinstripes, and takes every opportunity to imbibe in public; he’s filmed with a half-empty pint in UKIP’s latest party political broadcast. You can turn the sound off and the message is still clear: I’m not like the others. This approach appears to be working; a poll this week has him as Britain’s least unpopular party leader.
In some respects, the obloquy heaped upon David Cameron and Ed Miliband is odd. Both of them are in politics for the ‘right reasons’, Cameron out of a sense of public service and Miliband because of ideological conviction. Not even the merest whiff of financial impropriety attaches to either man. Indeed, for much of their careers they’ve been the junior earner in their families. They are both uxorious, family men.
But living standards are falling and whenever that happens politics becomes scratchy. Voters overwhelmingly want change but aren’t convinced that either Cameron or Miliband can bring it about. Instead, they see a crisis without end. Tory Ministers have been urged to stop talking about light at the end of the tunnel because the party’s research shows that this only irritates the public because they don’t think it is true.
Those close to Miliband believe that this public discontent provides him with his opening. In circumstances such as these, the electorate might be prepared to go for the less conventionally attractive politician.
Miliband is not an establishment figure; he would have been ill-suited to leading Labour before 1997 when the aim was to reassure swing voters that they were not too left wing. Equally, he is not a natural on the television sofa. It is hard to imagine him profiting at a time of easy prosperity. But, the argument goes, the public may well turn to him at a time when they want a fundamentally different direction for the county.
The Labour leader likes to claim that he, like Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, is the politician who is prepared to recast the consensus. He believes that the orthodoxies that have governed Britain these past 30 years need to be replaced and that he is the man to do it. To some in the Labour party, this is wilful thinking. At an event this week, Peter Mandelson read out part of Miliband’s Thatcher tribute before archly remarking, to audience laughter, that ‘he certainly sets himself a high bar’. Miliband’s New Labour critics accuse him of falling into the trap of believing that the electorate has moved to where he wants them to be.
Tony Blair’s article for the New Statesman last week has brought some of these divisions into the open. Some of those close to Miliband try to dismiss the entire notion of a row. One complained bitterly to me that ‘banality has become controversial’. They point to the fact that the former Prime Minister sent an advance copy of the article to Miliband’s office as proof that it wasn’t intended as a destablising act.
Those who have spoken to Blair recently, though, say that there is a fundamental difference between the two men. Blair believes that Labour were not in a bad place electorally in the early years of the last parliament. This analysis has it that the problem at the last election was the front man, Gordon Brown, and some of his policies, not the New Labour brand. This was what lay behind Blair’s recent statement that ‘if I’d had a fourth election, I would have given Cameron a run for his money… I’m not saying I would have won, but it would have been tighter than it was.’
Miliband doesn’t share this view. His opinion is that fundamental problems with Labour’s position were apparent by 2005 and with or without Gordon Brown, Labour would have struggled. This explains Miliband’s desire to move on from New Labour to One Nation Labour. He wants to go back to the drawing board on immigration, something that infuriates Blair who has become even more committed to his creed of openness since leaving office. Miliband’s circle are also explicit that they want a far bigger change in the way the economy is run than Blair ever contemplated. While the candle of Blairite public service reform is now kept alive by the coalition not his own party.
So, will 2015 be a sea-change election? No. 10 is scornful of the idea of a dramatic shift to the left. They claim that Miliband is out of touch with changing public attitudes to welfare. They also point out that enthusiasm for Labour is not something you come across on the doorstep.
There’s been no dramatic surge in support for Labour. Its lead, for this point in the parliament, is not spectacular. But as one Tory MP fretted to me this week, it doesn’t need to be. It is psephologically possible for Labour to win the next election without taking a vote off the Tories. Coalition, and the defection of the left of the Liberal Democrats, has increased the Labour base to 35 per cent, which was enough to give it a majority in 2005.
Much of the anti-politics sentiment comes from a sense that politicians are impotent in the face of today’s economic challenges. If, as the Treasury believes it will, the economy starts to recover from the autumn, then the voters might have something more positive to say about Cameron. But if it doesn’t, then Miliband will have a great chance to prove his internal critics wrong.