The polling numbers for Ed Miliband have not seen much improvement in spite of the hammering received by the Conservatives recently. But does that necessarily mean the Labour leader is an insurmountable obstacle to his party’s success at the next general election? People still don’t see him as a future Prime Minister; but the question now is, how much does that really matter?
The academics who number-crunch and intensively study this subject disagree about the importance of a leader’s characteristics in determining how well a party fares. Professor Anthony King, who edited “Leaders’ personalities and the outcomes of democratic elections” (OUP 2002) was emphatic that the public perception of a leader’s personality was not a dominant influence on elections. But the British Election Studies of 2001, 2005 and 2010 took an opposing view. Both sides would agree, however, that a party can certainly win even with a leader who doesn't perform so well in the media.
Political strategy is likely to be a more important determinant of outcome. On this front, Labour remains confused. The emotional damage of the Blair-Brown battle is still making clear thinking impossible, but that is something that could change much more easily than replacing the leader. The opportunity to win the next election is there for them, and at some point that might focus minds.
Cameron is the only game in town right now, but there are some significant areas of vulnerability. He is not seen as being naturally "on the side of ordinary people", and if the economy doesn't improve and Miliband were to find his voice, that could change their respective fortunes. Mere presentational tweaks won't fix that, it would require some bolder moves. But there's a fundamental problem about the kind of strong strategy needed to win an overall majority: you can't raise the reward without disproportionately raising the risk. The background condition is that most conceivable change is in the wrong direction for the Conservatives:
1) It is very unlikely that Labour will go backwards at the next election.
2) The boundary changes may not happen.
3) The LibDems are likely to recover at least a little (and in any case will do better in their strongholds than the national vote suggests).
4) Unexpected events are more likely to favour Labour – I simply invoke the principle of mean reversion.
In theory, that still leaves substantial potential for an overall Conservative majority. But here's the crux: where there's serious risk of failure, incumbents are likely to take the safer option; so they will probably want to cement post-election LibDem support.
An overall majority demands as a precondition – by simple maths – that the LibDems be virtually destroyed. The strategy that gets you there also makes future coalition much less likely. Ergo, Conservatives will not attempt a bold-but-risky majority-winning strategy, but will prioritise some kind of continued partnership.
This brings its own new issues, which Miliband may yet be able to exploit. And if he should gain a little more credibility – if a few people start to believe he may become PM – might that create its own momentum?
Final thought: which of these two scenarios for 2015 would you choose if you were a Conservative? Scenario A: a 55% chance of an overall Conservative majority and a 45% chance of a Labour government… or Scenario B: a 75% chance of a Conservative-led coalition?