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Even though the Labour party have consistently been ahead in the opinion polls since George Osborne’s ‘Omni shambles’ budget of March 2012, Ed Miliband has received a lot advice this summer, from prominent members of his own party in regards to Labour’s strategy for the next election. Ex-cabinet ministers, such as David Blunkett, Alistair Darling, and more recently, Andy Burnham have lined up to offer the Labour leader publicity-seeking advice. According to the most recent opinion poll by The Guardian, the Labour party holds a “seven percentage point advantage over the Tories”; however, Ed Miliband’s personal ratings have suffered a decline, with only 19% approving of his performance and 50% disapproving, giving him a net rating of – 31. Furthermore, the Guardian reported that David Cameron’s personal ratings now stand at a net rating of – 18, with 32% approving and 50% disapproving.
So should Labour be performing better in the opinion polls? The short answer is yes. Labour should be higher in the opinion polls, given the current state of the British economy and the sharp fall in living standards. Even though the OECD economic agency has increased its growth forecast for the UK economy from 0.8% to 1.5%, unemployment remains at 7.8%, and is not set to fall below 7% until the start of 2016. Wages are also being squeezed, with the number of UK workers earning below the so-called living wage rising from 3.4 million in 2009 to 4.8 million at a time when food, fuel and transport prices are rising. The problem for Labour is that they are still blamed by some members of the public for the large structural deficit Cameron and Osborne are trying to tackle. Furthermore, their message to the electorate on the economy has been both weak and ill received, due to a lack of new and imaginative policies.
Labour can still improve its standing in the opinion polls, but only if it gets behind domestic policies that are realistically manageable and appeal both to the core of the electorate and to those that have become dissatisfied with politicians. Ed Miliband’s attack on zero hour contracts, as well as his promotion of the ‘living wage’ is a good place to start as it will appeal to Labour’s core voters. In addition, the Labour leader’s persistence in adopting a new relationship with the trade unions would appear to be his way of improving transparency in the funding of political parties, an issue that has plagued all the major parties in parliament. Miliband now needs to be a more assertive in his own party. In the run up to the 1997 election, the Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, was criticised by Tony Blair for the lack of cohesion in the Conservative party: ‘I lead my party, he follows his’. This is the position that Ed Miliband needs to be in, portraying Labour as a united force, while painting the Conservatives as a divisive party, with weak leadership.
Perhaps the main issue in politics today, particularly in liberal democracies, is the public’s dissatisfaction with their politicians. According to the Guardian, ‘trust in politicians is at rock-bottom levels, and more than four out of five people think that MPs put their own or parties interests above those of the country’. The expenses scandal of 2009 is still firmly rooted in the minds of the British public and both politics and the major parties have suffered as a result. People have chosen to vote in council elections, and even in general elections, with 65.1% of the electorate turning out in the 2010 election, compared with 77.7% in 1992.
It therefore remains difficult to predict the outcome of the next election. The Liberal Democrats will almost certainly suffer as a result of their broken pledge on tuition fees, and Nick Clegg’s ineffective leadership in the face of their Conservative colleagues. Growth in both the economy and the jobs market will almost certainly be crucial factors in determining the result, as will the state of the NHS. Personally, my bet remains on a hung parliament, but as to which party will win the most seats, it’s anyone’s guess.