Clement Attlee, Ed Miliband and the Failures of Personality Politics

Clement Attlee, Ed Miliband and the Failures of Personality Politics

“An empty taxi drew up outside number 10 and Clement Attlee got out.” So goes a popular 40’s joke, often, though wrongly, attributed to Sir Winston Churchill. To many of his contemporaries, Attlee was an easy source of ridicule: he looked and sounded like a suburban accountant and seemed to embody the sober, acetic strain of christian socialism that ran through the Labour Party, the Methodist Church: the Clarion Movement. Certainly he lacked the personal gravitas of political and party contemporaries like Aneurin Bevan or Sir Anthony Eden.

Another of Churchill’s quips was that Attlee was “a very modest man,” albeit one with “much to be modest about.” While many took this to be a thinly-veiled insult, Churchill was sincere in his recognition that Attlee’s tenure as Prime Minister was one of remarkable achievement. Though he lacked the ebullience of Bevin, the bon viveur of Morrison or the intellect of Cripps, Attlee had quietly achieved his goals, from winning elections to fundamentally changing Britain. Simply put, he was often overlooked and routinely underestimated.

If David Cameron fails to make it back into government after this election he would do well to ruminate on the past and to question whether he underestimated the strength of Ed Miliband and relied too heavily on negative messaging as to his abilities.

From struggling to eat a bacon sandwich to his nagging image as limp-wristed technocrat, Miliband has found it tough to win favour with the electorate. However, during Thursday’s so-called ‘challenger debate’ he proved that he can not only hold his own against tough opposition, but also deliver a number of his own pointed lines of attack. Certainly post-debate polling favoured Miliband, with Survation handing him a decisive victory.

The Labour leader’s personal polling, long a headache for Labour spinners, has been consistently improving and it seems that the public may even be beginning to warm to him. After two strong weeks for Labour, prospective parliamentary candidates seem more confident in talking about their leader and his vision for Britain. Such positivity will be vital in the ground war that may well decide this election.

Although whispered in hushed tones around Brewers Green, Miliband is carrying something of a Prime Ministerial air, something that may well be galvanised with increased television coverage. Clearly Miliband still has work to do if he is to take the keys to number 10. Scotland remains an electoral complication and closer scrutiny from the press should be expected.

It is clear that efforts to paint him as weak have not worked. His direct request for a one-on-one debate with the Prime Minister and determination to fight his corner have shown a new side to Ed Miliband. By relying too heavily on personality politics and spin the Tories seem to have become blindsided to this and are now scrabbling for a new attack line. By this stage Lynton Crosby had predicted that the Conservatives would have a decisive poll lead, yet despite some movement in the polls this is still to be seen.

Whatever happens on May 7th, the Conservative Party would do well to ruminate on Attlee’s success and perhaps to acknowledge the limitations of personality politics. In 2015, as in 1945, it could well prove their undoing.

 

Who needs a lead?

Since 1997 it has been common knowledge that the way in which the Conservative and Labour parties stack up votes means that the Conservatives need to win a much higher overall share of the vote to win the most seats.

Some suggest that this gap could be as big as 7%. In 2010 the Tories had a vote lead in England of 11.4%. Wednesday’s Ipsos-MORI poll had Labour 2% ahead in England.

A lot of this has been down to Scotland where last time 41 of the 59 seats went to LAB. That clearly is not going to be repeated but what about elsewhere?

The packed Political Studies Association held an event this week in Westminster saw Dr Chris Hanretty, Professor Stephen Fisher of Electionsetc and Professor John Curtice give very different views.

Curtice suggested that even with a mass of Scottish losses Labour can win an overall majority with a 5% lead on GB vote share. For the Tories the required vote lead is in the 7-11% region depending on Tory-Lib Dem marginals.

One last point is that in 2005 the Conservatives led Labour on votes in England yet lost by 92. Stephen Fisher however suggested that the Labour advantage has been so seriously eroded by the SNP that their advantage is now largely meaningless.

Jack Taylor

Jack Taylor

Consultant at Keene Communications
Jack’s background is in domestic politics, having worked in various research position in both the Commons and the Lords. He has a particular interest in matters pertaining to infrastructure, transport and development.
Jack Taylor

About the Author

Jack’s background is in domestic politics, having worked in various research position in both the Commons and the Lords. He has a particular interest in matters pertaining to infrastructure, transport and development.