On why Ed Miliband could not ‘make and shape the news’ during the campaign in the way he and his communications advisers wanted to
Over a week before polling day, I questioned Ed Miliband’s strategy – see here. Essentially it was one of ignoring the Euro-noise and focussing on national policy issues close to Labour’s heart. Hence the policy announcement on the NHS that briefly deflected the media narrative for a couple of days before it headed back to the Tory-UKIP fight. The aim of his strategy was to ignore political debate on where Labour is seen as weaker in the mainstream press, and focus on its strengths – irrespective of context. An aggressive, co-ordinated media and social media campaign with as many activists and politicians ‘on message’ bore many similarities to Blair’s campaigns in the mid-late 1990s. The problem for Miliband was that while Blair had much of the media onside or not aggressively hostile to him, Miliband did not and does not.
Going around the country repeating the same lines to take is not really newsworthy
This is what Miliband did – in contrast to Farage, who found himself having to respond to the daily stream of questions regarding controversial social media posts by members and candidates of his party. Yet even some of the shocking posts that received a fair amount of media coverage did not shift the positions of the voters who long ago had already decided who they were going to vote for. Social media world too was exposed by its current limitations. While things may have flashed around Twitter, much of Farage’s core vote isn’t one that uses social media regularly. Hence Twitter storms easily bypassing them unless they somehow end up in the print media.
Where was the brave and radical Ed Miliband that some media commentators have spoken of?
Such as Polly Toynbee here. Because from where I’ve been watching from, brave and radical decisions from the top of the party were conspicuous by their absence. Miliband ran a very ‘safe’ and strategically conservative campaign compared to what it could have been. Furthermore, the response from Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan in one newspaper indicates another flaw in Labour HQ’s response – see here. If Labour had polled much better, would Mr Khan have penned such a response – one that surely must have been approved by Miliband given the centralised nature of the party?
“Hang on – didn’t Labour do well?”
Both these two articles in The Guardian (here, and here) indicate all is not well – despite the significant gains in local council seats at the local elections. In Cambridge, Labour did very well at the local elections – leaving clear water between them and their opponents. In Cambridge, Labour fought an aggressive but well planned and well-co-ordinated campaign that shot their opponents out of the water – see here. With 25 seats to the Lib Dems’ 14 seats on the council, Labour have the majority to take some risks beyond what was a solid but safe manifesto. Whether the financial situation in the council will allow for the same thing is another matter. Yet for me, Cambridge Labour did well not because of, but inspite of what was happening at central HQ.
Accounting for the differences between the local and European votes in Cambridge
At a European level in Cambridge (source Cambridge News here) the stats are
At a local council level for Cambridge, the stats are:
|Inds (inc Puffles)||1,113|
[Created with the HTML Table Generator – which is a useful little tool!]
The differences between the local council and European election votes mirror what Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman said on TV just after the European votes were announced. She said the responses from voters when out campaigning was that while voters were happy to vote for their Labour local council candidate, at a European level they felt the main three parties needed a kicking, hence voting for UKIP or the Greens.
OfCom give UKIP a helping hand
I remember reading this at the time but failed to recognise the significance of the ruling taken in March 2014 – read it in full here. Nick Robinson, the much maligned BBC journalist asked so many soft questions that someone on Twitter is now spoofing him. Treating an organisation as a major party is one thing, giving the political parties an easy ride (which is what the BBC in particular did) is another. The lack of cutting analysis and searching questions over the past month or so has made BBC current affairs programmes depressing viewing.
“What would a brave and radical Ed Miliband campaign have looked like?”
Basically I’m still none-the-wiser about What Miliband’s vision for Europe and the EU actually is. In particular, I would have wanted to know answers to the following questions:
- What is his analysis of what is wrong with Europe?
- What are his specific policies do deal with those problems?
- How is he going to work with his European sister parties to deal with those problems?
- What does success look and feel like?
But we didn’t get much at all. Credit to Richard Howitt, Labour’s lead candidate in East Anglia who actually gave as much as he could in terms of answers to those questions and something of a positive vision of what the EU could be. Not only that, he was one of the few Labour candidates who publicly responded to the threat from The Greens as well as UKIP. From the Labour perspective, they lost more than a few votes to The Greens. Yet Ed Miliband’s response to The Greens has been one of relative silence as it is with UKIP. Given that The Greens polled ****over 1.2 million votes**** (see here), they are going to have to come up with a response. This is something Labour’s chief whip in the Lords (and longtime Puffles’ follower) Steve Bassam of Brighton has written about here.
“No – really: what should Ed Miliband have done?”
Answered all of those questions above in his campaign, creating some really inspiring materials and clear policies for his campaigners to work with. In particular I think he could have brought in campaigners from sister European parties and sent Labour campaigners & senior politicians to other European countries (even himself!) to campaign there. Had he himself gone over to other European countries – even a handful just for a few days, the media would have followed him because it would have been unprecedented. Such a move in itself would have challenged the media narrative of the EU being something over there rather than something that we are an integral part of (whether we like it or not). Can you imagine visually and emotionally what a high energy campaign involving lots of younger people from diverse backgrounds and countries all campaigning together on similar issues would have been like? Can you imagine how this would have compared to the politicians of other parties – in particular those to Labour’s political right wing? For my generation and younger (ie under 35s) who have been through further and higher education (which is now lots of us), such a campaign would have been something we could relate to. Not least because we met and studied with people from other countries at university. But instead of putting that case, Miliband retreated into the safety blanket of core domestic policies.
“Why didn’t campaigning on core domestic policies work as successfully as Labour had hoped?”
My view is that the context was all wrong. Labour HQ tried to fight local and European elections on national issues, rather than on local and European issues. Yes, we know the Coalition made a pigs breakfast of the Health and Social Care Act, but voting Labour at the local elections ain’t gonna change that in the short term. They could have gone in strongly about European energy security issues and how Labour in the European Parliament is going to deal with those – but instead they chose to stick with the energy price freeze that they’ll need legislation in the UK Parliament to enact. This is not a criticism of the policies themselves – that’s for different blogs and blogposts. The mistake Ed Miliband and team made was to try and place national policy issues into a local and European context. Given the media frenzy around Europe in particular, this simply did not resonate with the public and the media as it might have done at a different time – and might well do in 2015.
“Still, Labour did a lot better than the Tories and the Liberal Democrats”
Absolutely. The Liberal Democrats face the toughest task of all – not least financially due to the loss of funding that goes with losing their MEP seats. That’ll be painful for party activists paid out of EU funds. There’ll be a sense of relief in Labour at having increased their MEP count from 13 to 20 – though note that 2009 was a particular low point for Labour. The numbers speak for themselves – 4 million voted for Labour but 4.3million voted for UKIP. Furthermore, 64% of eligible voters did not turn out to vote – for whatever reason. At first I labelled it apathy, but on second thoughts it’s more contempt for the way we as a country do politics.
“What are the lessons learned for Labour in this campaign?”
I think there are lessons for all political parties – and us the voters – following this campaign. The risk is that the main parties will be looking to ‘solve the UKIP problem’ – in particular by adapting their policies to those that voted for them rather than trying to come up with policies to encourage some of the the 64% of people that did not turn out to vote to get involved.
The UKIP vote is a symptom of a wider problem, not a problem within itself. As Jon Worth recently posted:
“The vote was as bad there as it was in Britain. It just shows how far we have sunk, in terms of democracy when a party without a manifesto can come first in an election. It is so depressing.”
Which, as he said pretty much nails it. After all, how do you fight a winning party that does not have a manifesto?