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Opinion by Andy Hume
When Ed Miliband takes to the stage to debate David Cameron on Thursday night, he’ll have plenty of backup. Not just the five aides that each leader has been allowed to bring to the first televised debate proper of the 2015 general election, and the phalanx of shadow cabinet members stationed at strategic points around the UK media terrain ready to spin into action for their boss; but four other opposition party leaders lining up at his shoulder to join the attack on the incumbent Prime Minister, and a fifth – Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats – providing supporting fire despite his position as Mr Cameron’s deputy in the coalition government that has run Britain for the last five years. Therein lies the danger for David Cameron described by Ray D’Cruz elsewhere on this site– but also a dilemma for Mr Miliband.
There are a number of factors that play to the Leader of the Opposition’s advantage in the unprecented (for Britain) seven-way format that was agreed, after much negotiation and controversy, in mid-March. Most obviously, it enables Mr Miliband to present himself to the voters directly, which can only be a net positive for the Labour leader.
It is a feature of our age that politicians are almost uniformly unpopular with the electorate, but even by the standards of his rivals, Mr Miliband’s approval ratings are terrible. He is frequently portrayed by Britain’s press, much of which is hostile to the Opposition, as incompetent and clownish, and lampooned mercilessly on social media. It is true that Mr Miliband has been guilty of a number of missteps during his nearly five years as leader, and been hampered by a fairly hapless media operation that has hardly helped him get his message across. It is also the case that he is not a natural on camera, and frequently comes across as awkward, wonkish, and remote.
But the Labour leader is highly intelligent and has shown himself capable of tapping into the public’s mood of distrust towards the media, during the phone hacking scandal that engulfed the Mirror Group and Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and articulating the widely felt sense of anger at the perceived inequality in British society and the failure of the UK’s painfully slow economic recovery to share the proceeds of growth fairly across rich and poor alike.
Simply put, Mr Miliband cannot fail to exceed expectations on Thursday night, if only because they are so modest; simply walking to the podium without tripping over will be enough to defy the worst caricatures put about by his enemies. But he is capable of considerably more than merely surviving the debate without disaster. This is the main reason why the Prime Minister was unwilling to debate him head to head, and probably explains the modest opinion poll “bounce” that Labour enjoyed over the weekend following a pair of major set-piece studio interviews involving the two rivals for Number 10 in which the Labour challenger was widely considered to have, at the very least, held his own.
In the seven-way leaders’ debate on Thursday night, Mr Miliband’s attacks on the Conservatives’ political and economic record will resonate all the more for being conducted with the support of most of the other leaders on the stage. And while Nick Clegg will do his best to defend the Government’s record over the last parliament, even he will join with the Greens and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists in echoing the Labour attack on the Tories’ plans for the next one. As Ray D’Cruz notes, Mr Cameron may find himself being ganged up on at times, and it may be an uncomfortable experience for the Tories.
But the format also holds two significant dangers for Ed Miliband. First, he is by common consent not as accomplished a media performer as Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg, the affable populist Nigel Farage or the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon – who may well emerge as the winner from Thursday’s debate. Even if Mr Miliband does well, the fragmented nature of the debate and the short time allotted each leader for answers will allow him precious little opportunity to differentiate himself from the other pretenders on the stage queuing up to attack the Prime Minister. If media attention is captured by an effervescent performance from Sturgeon or Farage, as it was by Nick Clegg in 2010, then the Labour leader may find himself just another face in a crowded field, which would suit David Cameron just fine.
A related problem, which may turn out to be even more serious, is that the other debaters will almost certainly not be content to train their fire solely on the Conservative leader. One of the quirks of the British electoral map is that in much of the country, the six other parties will be scrapping with each other for a relatively fixed share of the votes on offer. In Scotland, the SNP’s hopes of securing a landslide victory rest on taking votes and seats from Labour, not the Tories. In much of the north of England, it is Labour that are under threat from the insurgents of UKIP, rather than the Tories; in metropolitan areas, Labour are leeching votes to the Green party. And the Lib Dems’ terrible poll ratings are the direct result of disaffected left-wing supporters deserting them after their decision to go into coalition with the Tories in 2010; any repeat of that year’s “Cleggmania” (however unlikely that may be) is bad news for Labour.
Every one of the opposition leaders on the podium on Thursday will therefore, at least to some extent, be fighting for the same votes. It will be in their interests to portray Tories and Labour as two peas in a pod; avatars of a broken political system that has produced five years of failed austerity (the charge from the Greens and the SNP), or helpless dupes of the European Union unable to control the unchecked immigration that is straining the UK’s cultural cohesion and creaky infrastructure to breaking point (UKIP’s main campaigning issues).
In summary, if he is forced to tack to his left, Mr Miliband will risk vacating the all-important centre ground on which elections are typically said to be won and lost; either way, he may find himself being portrayed as part of the problem, not the solution to Britain’s ills. In the increasingly fragmentary political landscape, Labour’s central pitch is that only they can oust the Tories from office – but if the other parties can persuade voters that Labour are peddling the same discredited politics as the Conservatives, Mr Miliband’s position becomes very precarious indeed. And internecine left-wing squabbling may allow the incumbent to “rise above the fray” and project statesmanship and authority.
Thursday’s debate offers opportunities for Ed Miliband, then, but also considerable risks. It will be messy, confusing, utterly unpredictable and, for political obsessives, compulsive viewing. We can’t wait.