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Tuesday, May 13, 2014 

Between the doomers and the Milibelievers.

The obvious, arguably only response to two polls showing a Tory lead for the first time in two years is to put your panic trousers on.  To some this is only what they've expected and long predicted. The "Milibelievers" have been living in a dream world, a comforting place now infiltrated by the twin monsters of past economic failure and lack of leadership projection. With the economy growing, even if the recovery isn't being felt much beyond the south east, only for so long could Labour live off the general unpopularity of the coalition and the emphasis on the cost of living. If anything, Labour should be grateful for the rise of the UKIPs: without Farage's party, now regularly polling at around the 15% mark, the Tory lead would likely be even more crushing.

Scarily, even if just this once, Labour's doomers might have something resembling a point.  You can make all the usual, valid points about outlier polls, margins of error, how on Sunday YouGov had the party with a 7 point advantage over the Tories, it just being a blip and so on and so forth, it doesn't alter the fact that the gap has been steadily lessening.  Yes, everyone knew the Conservatives would make up ground as the general election approached, as they always have; that they have done so prior to elections it was thought they would do badly in, and probably still will, all things considered, is a major surprise.  Last month's 6 point lead in the Graun/ICM series was probably boosted a little by the Maria Miller factor, and while the Tories still have to increase their share of the vote on last time to have any hope of getting a majority in parliament, something not achieved since 1974, an outright Labour victory also looks unlikely.

Most of these worries will be played down in precisely these terms, and besides, with a year still to go anything could happen (more on which in a minute).  The one finding that stands out from the Graun poll which can't be so easily explained away is the transformation in attitude towards George Osborne.  Lest we forget, just less than 2 years ago he was being booed by the crowd at the Paralympics, and for long periods since has been about as popular as a musical on the X Factor endorsed by Mr Cowell himself.  With the budget well received, despite not doing much other than bribing those likely to vote with their own money, Osborne is now, incredibly, seen as doing a better job than David Cameron is.  He gets a +5 score, compared to Dave's +2.  Ed Miliband by contrast is now somehow seen as putting in a poorer performance than the Cleggster, at -25 compared to Nick's -21.

Apart from further boosting Osborne's already off the scale opinion of himself, it brings into sharp focus how the problem right now is not policies, which for so long were sketches and for the most part still are, with occasional specific promises like getting a doctor's appointment within 48 hours thrown in to add colour, but Miliband himself.  This isn't due to Miliband not having been seen enough, although both he and most other shadow ministers seem to have a tendency to disappear from view for long periods of time for no discernible reason, it's instead down to how many have made their minds up already.  It's not that Ed's a "metropolitan libural" as the likes of Dan Hodges have it, not understanding the average Labour voter, especially when the charge is now being made against all of the political leaders by the UKIPs, it's that he's not different enough.  When someone as establishment as Nigel Farage can pose as a revolutionary, it really shouldn't take much for Ed to position himself as firmly on the side of the dispossessed, vulnerable and struggling to make ends meet.  That he hasn't is down to how Labour under Ed has never decided what it wants to be: the Tories with a slightly kinder face, a position they so often default to, or an actual opposition, against the coalition's running down and belittling of the NHS, welfare state and much else that so many hold dear.  For all his attempts to be radical, and indeed the corresponding attempts by both the Tories and the right-wing press to paint him as a raving Marxist, he's just another Westminster politician, the same old same old.

This isn't a counsel of despair by any means.  Winning the policy battle shows that, in spite of what John Harris wrote last month.  It does however mean Ed's style of leadership has to change, which is presumably why David Axelrod has been brought in.  The difficulty is it might have been left too late, with perceptions now that much harder to shift.  All may yet depend on just how right-wing the Tories go in the face of the challenge from UKIP, with the potential for centrist voters to be turned off by the attempt to woo back defectors to Farage.

Also needing to be factored into the equation is the increasing possibility of a yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.  The SNP campaign over the last couple of months has amounted to little more than asking everyone whether they want to be governed by Cameron or someone they've chosen themselves, the hardly surprising response being the latter.  The further Labour slip in the Westminster polls, the more the undecided start wondering whether the only way to get a government even slightly responsive to their concerns is by voting yes.  Scottish independence wouldn't mean perpetual Tory government in England and Wales, but it would render the 2015 vote all but void, almost certainly necessitating another general election once Scotland secedes a year later.  It probably won't happen, yet such has been the volatility since the rise of UKIP post the 2012 local elections you wouldn't completely rule it out either.  All the more reason why Miliband and co have to do better, and if these two polls don't end the complacency that's set in, nothing will.

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