The Tories and Lib Dems are losing support according to recent polls – but Labour isn’t doing much better. Alex Snowdon argues that Miliband has failed to oppose an increasingly unpopular and divided coalition government.

vote share‘Labour must support the 30th June strike, or become irrelevant in the eyes of an increasing number of its key supporters.’

So tweets Simon Hewitt, of the Latte Labour blog. And he’s right. I’ll come back to this point, but first let’s look at what the new Guardian/ICM poll tells us about the governing parties.

The coalition’s approval rating has fallen since March. Compared with last summer it has collapsed. 50% of those polled now say the coalition is doing a bad job, while only 35% say it is doing a good job. An approval rating of -15% is bad news for Tories and Lib Dems alike.

It is grim for the junior partner. The poll puts support for Lib Dems at just 12%. While this may not seem too gruesome – many other polls have put the party even lower – ICM consistently gives the Lib Dems a higher rating than other polls, for reasons unfathomable to me. 12% marks a significant drop since March.

Though the Tories fare better, David Cameron – who tends to come out of opinion polls better than either his party or government – has a negative rating for the first time (-5%). This compares with +23% last June.

Whether you look at the coalition’s approval ratings, the parties’ poll figures or Cameron’s personal rating, things have got worse for those in office.

What, then, of the Opposition? We might expect Labour and its leader, Ed Miliband, to fare well. Yet Miliband’s personal ratings are very poor. At -21% his rating is slightly worse than Nick Clegg’s, which in a perverse way can be considered quite an achievement.

Miliban’s party has gained support in the polls, on the back of disenchantment with the government (especially with the Lib Dems, due to their opportunistic role in a right-wing regime imposing cuts). But there’s no evidence of popular enthusiasm for Miliband and Labour.

This is no surprise. Miliband has failed to oppose an increasingly unpopular government. He is still failing. Nobody knows what Labour’s policies are. Miliband sends out contradictory messages, appears weak and indecisive, misses opportunities, and equivocates about opposing the cuts.

It isn’t merely a personal failing. Labour remains tied to most of the assumptions and ideas which guided its 13 years in government. Miliband and Ed Balls can’t decide what position to adopt towards the pensions issue, but they are definitely unwilling to adopt a stance of uncopromising opposition to the coalition’s pensions ‘reform’.

So they end up sounding confused and incoherent, gently deriding the government for adopting the wrong tone – more than it criticises it on grounds of substance – while saving stronger words of censure for trade unions standing up to a huge attack on their members’ pensions.

Labour is compromised by its own past. How can Labour leaders firmly oppose pensions ‘reform’ when they started the process in government? How can they gain political capital from hatred of higher tuition fees when it was a Labour government which introduced fees and commissioned the Browne report? How can a party which paved the way for marketisation of the NHS gain from widespread opposition to government health policy?

Yet, despite all that, Labour could still adopt new policies which decisively break from the neo-liberal logic of its past. I suspect any policies at all would benefit Miliband’s personal ratings – he remains an invisible man, politically indistinct – but the party as a whole would gain support from clear alternative policies to a government hellbent on destructive cuts.

I imagine close advisors of Miliband will be giving him the opposite advice. Tack to the right, they’ll say, because the Tories’ economic policies have higher approval than Labour’s, and Cameron fares better as party leader.

It won’t occur to them that Miliband’s endless vacillating and indecision, his failure to clearly articulate opposing views to Cameron and Osborne, might be part of the problem. Or that millions of people disaffected with official politics may be motivated and enthused by a Labour leadership which takes the fight to the Tories, says ‘there IS an alternative’, and then outlines what that is.

If Miliband and Balls continue along their current track, they are doomed to appear irrelevant to most of the people wanting a fightback against cuts. It will be like a re-run of Neil Kinnock’s lukewarm opposition to the poll tax, and refusal to back the many millions of people refusing to pay it, which allowed the Tories to unexpectedly win the 1992 general election.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).