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Ignore the Polls: Ed Miliband Is Still on Course to Be the Prime Minister

03/04/2014 14:47 BST | Updated 02/06/2014 10:59 BST

The British press seem to have agreed that Ed Milband hasn't been doing very well lately. His budget response was rather badly received. His extension of the energy freeze to small business was barely reported. And meanwhile, George Osborne has been taking some extremely spurious credit for talking about full employment, (even if what he was saying about it was that he was redefining it to make it an easier target to reach).

The criticisms of Ed centre on two broad issues. The first is his strategy of focusing on the cost of living. The argument here is that this message might have held water as long as inflation was rising faster than wages. But soon wage growth will pick up and inflation will simmer down, and then Ed's argument will run out of road. He has, it is claimed, chained himself to the anchor of economic bad news so that when the economic good news returns, he will have nothing more to say.

The second issue is simply the polling numbers. A post-budget Opinium/Observer poll put Labour's lead down to 1 point, the lowest since the 2010 general election. Surely, it is argued, this is the beginning of the Tory pre-election fightback.

Both of these accounts are wrong.

Yes, it is likely that wage growth will soon outstrip inflation. But no, that does not mean that the cost of living argument will run out of road. Firstly because the cost of living is not just about wages and inflation figures. It is also about whether prices are seen to be fair. If a company overcharges you, your cost of living goes up. And, as he has been arguing, companies have been overcharging us left right and centre. Not just the energy companies, who last week admitted it. Not just pension providers, whose charges the government have tacitly admitted are too high by imposing their own cap. And not just the payday loan companies, who the Office of Fair Trading has criticised, and who are a daily feature of life for about 2 million voters (which is, by the way, roughly how many more votes the Tories won than Labour at the last election). But also the train companies, car parks, low-cost airlines, banks, and consumer helplines. All of which Labour has talked about, and is likely to talk about more in future. Given the offer of lower prices at the next election, does anyone seriously believe that the electorate are going to be more concerned with the ratio of average wages to a weighted basket of average goods which make up the inflation figures?

And this brings us onto the second reason why Ed's cost of living argument has plenty of room to run. It chimes with daily experience. More people than ever before - a record 1.4 million people - are working part time only because they can't find full-time work. The Great Recession has left us with an army of self-employed people and companies with ten people of fewer, many struggling to make ends meet. This is the new shape of the labour market but it does not show up in the headline figures, and these people will be receptive to the cost of living message. They are not going to be cheered by statistical quibbles about average wages.

And then there is the 'polls' argument. Firstly, it's not at all clear that the polls did show a post-budget bump for the Tories. Another poll soon after - the YouGov/Sunday Times one - had Labour's lead at 7 points. But the truth that no pundit will admit about individual polls is that they tell us very little. All that really matters are the long-term movements.

And the fundamentals still look dire for the Tories. Their vote share has been declining over decades, parties almost never win more votes than they did in a previous election, the right is split and the left is united, Labour has a significant lead in the marginal seats, many formerly solid Tory suburban seats are places where Labour-leaning ethnic minorities are moving to, and fewer people get their news from newspapers than ever before, which will harm Tory chances.

But the biggest issue for the Tories is simpler than all of that: they are simply still toxic to too many voters. They are toxic in much of Wales, Scotland, and large parts of the north of England. Linton Crosby's tactic of focusing on welfare, crime and immigration misses the point: the challenge the Tories face is more cultural than political. 18 million Brits wouldn't even consider voting for them. That's 40% of the country, as opposed to 33% who would never consider voting Labour. The Tories' problem is not their 'product.' It's the seller. Ed Miliband is still on course to be Prime Minister.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute, an International Security Lecturer at the University of Chicago.