Only Miliband can stop Labour now

This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph online on 3 March 2015

The public likes Labour, but is not convinced by Ed Miliband

For Labour the election campaign has both light and shade. On the positive side, they are ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls. The average of pollsters, from Electoral Calculus, has Labour about 1.5 per cent ahead. Plus, the right-of-centre parties are split between the Conservatives and the UKIP insurgents. Labour also benefits from the electoral geography which effectively gives them another 1.5 per cent.

Under these current numbers, Labour would be the largest party in the Commons.

On the other hand, the growth in SNP support in Scotland has been very damaging to Labour. The SNP are currently predicted to win about 47 of the 59 Scottish seats, taking 29 of Labour's current total of 41 seats there. That loss makes it harder for Labour to win a majority in Westminster. Labour must be hoping that the post-referendum rise in SNP support will fade, but there is not much sign of that so far.

Labour's other problem is the public's perception of their leader, Ed Miliband. Despite Labour's poll support of 34 per cent, the voters have less trust in him personally. In answer to the question "Who would make the best Prime Minister?" only 18 per cent of voters choose Ed Miliband (YouGov polling, 8-25 February, sample size 13,180). Significantly, amongst Labour's own supporters, 31 per cent actually replied "Don't know". Even in Scotland, over twice as many respondents chose Cameron (31 pc) over Miliband (14 pc).

The chart above puts these figures into historical context. The chart displays public opinion a few months before the previous eight general elections, showing the national support for the incumbent Conservative and Labour party leaders to be Prime Minister.

The chart captures Labour's paradox. Although Labour is ahead of the Conservatives in popular support, Miliband is personally much less popular than Cameron. The historical parallels are striking. Miliband is the least popular Labour Prime Ministerial choice in thirty years, well behind Neil Kinnock in both his 1987 and 1992 campaigns. The more popular PM candidate has also gone on to win the election in every case, except in 1979 where the Conservatives' 9 per cent poll lead compensated for Margaret Thatcher's early poor personal ratings.

Such contradictions make predicting this election difficult. Common sense suggests that the gap between Labour's support and their leader's ratings will shrink when voters are face to face with a ballot paper. But this could happen in two ways. Either support for Miliband goes up as Labour supporters swallow their doubts, or else Labour votes go down as Miliband-sceptics put their crosses elsewhere. No-one knows for sure, but the historical record suggests the latter possibility is more likely.

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