Labour leads in polls of voting intention but persistently lags behind the Conservatives on economic competence, often a better indication of a party’s electoral prospects. Neil Kinnock, the leader under whom Labour lost the 1987 and 1992 elections, learned that lesson the hard way. Given the choice between “mean but smart” and “nice but dim”, voters tend to pick the former, says Peter Kellner of YouGov, a pollster.
The impression that Labour instinctively sides with welfare claimants, employed or otherwise, does little to help, particularly when the party remains so vague about where it would make savings. Where it opposes government cuts it rarely proposes alternative sources of cash. On welfare, as on schools, health and policing, tumbleweed blows through the places where serious policies should be. Given Labour’s tempestuous history, Mr Miliband is understandably reluctant to restart old fights by proposing controversial new ideas.
That partly explains why the party is so united and harmonious. Difficult choices cause internal splits; avoiding them keeps the ship steady. But to govern, as the old refrain puts it, is to choose. Until they see the Labour Party making difficult choices, voters will struggle to imagine it in power.