Ed Miliband’s problem, in one tweet

I am not a campaigning guru by any stretch of the imagination.  I have never artworked a piece of literature, never mind written a campaign plan or come up with a political slogan.  Yet even I winced when I saw the tweet below:

There are two separate issues here.

First, there is the tiresome belief, apparently widespread in the Labour Party, that the entire media is out to get them.  This is not completely unreasonable – much of the Tory press *is* out to get them – but the BBC?  How about the fact that the publications which led the ‘Miliband in crisis’ story last week were the Guardian and the New Statesman?  Complaining about media bias in order to bludgeon critical voices into quiescence has often been a successful right wing tactic, but here it just comes across at petulant whining.

The second problem is rather more significant – Ed Miliband has decided to appeal to the electorate with fifteen separate promises, clumped into three vague headings.  (This is not an exact extract from his zero-zero speech, though it has similarities to an even longer list of policies Miliband ran through in it, but is apparently from an e-mail sent out to Labour supporters immediately after.) This is, from a messaging point of view, really stupid.  It’s not just because of the difficulty of the electorate receiving, processing and remembering these fifteen top lines of policy.  Reading a list of these promises – which are all doubtless positively received individually – the average voter, already sceptical of politicians and with a vague idea that Labour are a load of well-meaning profligates, will think: “and I’m going to get the moon on a stick as well, I suppose.”  As a reasonable rule of thumb, five is the limit of the number of main issues a party can campaign on before becoming incoherent.  One experienced campaigner I know says that the four promises on the front of the Lib Dem manifesto in 2010 was one too many.

True, there’s an attempt to group the promises into three key areas.  But they are vague to the point of practically being meaningless.  The first (‘I will undo the damage the Tories have done to our country’) is just a melange of four bad things which the Tories have done, with no particular unifying principle other than that they are bad things which have been done by the Tories.  The second (‘I will take on the powerful vested interests that hold millions back’) is a bit sharper, though the apologetic mention of immigration at the end looks painfully tacked on (since when have employment agencies been powerful vested interests?)  Finally, there is the catch-all promise, that Labour will ‘start to rebuild a fairer, better, Britain’, which covers everything from expanding housebuilding to raising the Minimum Wage.  This is really just a restatement of his wider attack on inequality.

If I were a canvasser on the doorstep, and I were asked by a sceptical elector to explain exactly why they should vote Labour, I would find it difficult on the basis of this without just listing a series of policies – an approach which persuades nobody except the loyal and policy fanatics like me.  The overarching theme – the vision – of a ‘zero zero society’ is one that will resonate with many people.  The policies, as I say, are probably all very popular (some even make sense).  But there’s nothing of substance in between – no values.  And that matters because it’s these arguments which give intellectual credibility to everything else, and which really explain how Labour will govern.  Everybody knows (apart from Eoin Clarke) that the attrition rate of the policies listed above would be about 50% even in a majority Labour government, and that they would make up enough material for two Queen’s Speeches at the most.  What would a Labour government do the rest of the time?  What would its priorities be?  How would it change Britain?  Answer came there little.

This is (by one count) Miliband’s third relaunch, and with six months before the General Election it is reasonable to think that it can only be his last, and that these are the messages he will take into the election; the die is cast.  At least he is responding to declining poll ratings, rather than, say, driving in fifth gear over an electoral cliff while murmuring ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ (naming no names).  And perhaps voters dislike the Coalition enough to give his party the benefit of the doubt in the end.  But, after over four years, Miliband still hasn’t proffered a persuasive explanation of what the Labour Party stands for.