The Guardian's Jackie Ashley has written a defence of Ed Miliband's leadership. It's hard not to wonder if it was secretly written to undermine him. For instance, here's how Ashley describes Miliband's coolness under pressure:
He isn't flapping. He isn't ramping it up. He just blinks, listens, gives a long hard look, and patiently returns to what he was saying in the first place.
The "blinking" and the "long hard look" act as subtle reminders of Ed's unusual demeanour (even the flapping makes me think of his arms during a speech). But this isn't the worst of it. After acknowledging that it hasn't been a great year for the Labour leader, Ashley attempts to make the case that it hasn't been as bad as people say:
Let's start with the polling. This shouldn't be a major issue. Though in the wake of the Cameron veto and the Anglo-French row, the Tories got a six-point lead in the ICM poll, while YouGov had Labour three points ahead. In the west London Feltham and Heston byelection, where real votes were being counted, Labour's Seema Malhotra won with an 8.6% swing, which seems pretty good, and would in fact deliver Labour a general election victory if replicated at the next election. When it comes to personal satisfaction ratings, according to Mori, Ed has led Dave for six months of this year and Dave has led Ed for six months – even stevens then.
(If you're wondering how that third sentence is meant to read I really can't help you.) Ashley suggests that Labour's position, somewhere between neck-and-neck and slightly ahead of a government that is doing lots of unpopular things, and displaying considerable incompetence, is nothing to worry about. Hmm. The by-election point is a fair one, but by itself it doesn't tell us much about Ed's leadership. Then comes a remarkable claim: Ed and Dave are "even stevens" in polls of leadership satisfaction. The Guardian provides no link to the polling in question. This is unsurprising, because the claim is untrue. Miliband has been consistently behind Cameron, according to the very polling firm Ashley references. I can only think that she based her assertion on a half-remembered report without checking the source, and no Guardian editor thought to check it on her behalf.*
Ashley does then concede that perhaps Miliband ought to be doing better, but blames two groups for his problems: the media, and "vicious' Blairites:
(T)hose who attack him might reflect on the Twitter exchanges on Sunday, where one Ed supporter, Owen Jones, pointed out that some Labour people are doing the Tories' work for them.
Now, I read political commentators because I think, or like to think, that they are offering their honest views, even when sympathetic to one side or the other. Yet here Jackie Ashley more or less concedes that she's an instrument of the game rather than a commentator on it. That hardly enhances my already weak faith in her seriousness.
The closing section of this strange, shifty and rambling column begins like this:
Yet I'm conscious that this defence of Ed Miliband could start to sound like an apologia.
An apologia, in case you need telling, means a written defence of something. So this sentence reads, "I'm conscious this defence of Ed Miliband could start to sound like a defence". If only it sounded like a remotely convincing one. Trying to be helpful to Ed, Ashley sets out her own manifesto:
It clearly must revolve around two themes. The first is growth. The second is democracy, particularly in the European context.
I love that "clearly". Let's leave aside whether a white paper on European institutions is the thing to revitalise Miliband's leadership in the eyes of voters, and focus on Ashley's growth plan:
The plan for growth means getting out of overseas military adventures, longer-term nuclear fantasies and a tax system which lures rich, tax-allergic exiles here for no benefit. It means more help for the industries with a future, including high-grade manufacturing and IT, and a sense of urgency about education – and yes, getting away from the exam-obsessed, league table-fixated system criticised by Mehdi Hassan here last week.
I'm hardly an economist, but only someone with no economic literacy would write that paragraph and call it a "plan for growth". With the possible exception of help for industry, none of these measures would have any effect on growth, at least in the short to medium-term. Oddly, they are all supply-side initiatives. Ashley offers not a word about boosting demand and indeed some of these policies might be deflationary. We can search in vain for a rationale but basically this is just a random list of things Ashley would like to see happen, and nothing to do with economic growth.
All in all, this column is an embarrassment. It's badly written, poorly researched, factually inaccurate, and it displays a painfully shallow grasp of the issues. In the middle of it, Ashley takes a little swipe at her fellow commentator, John Rentoul of the Independent, namechecking him as a nasty Blairite and referring to him as a blogger (like a lot of political journalists from established media, including Ashley, Rentoul blogs and tweets as well as writing for his paper). That the term 'blogger' still works as a jibe is testament to the fact that journalists from mainstream media still offer a superior quality of work to that found only on the internet. How long that will stay true, I don't know - the distinctions are already collapsing. But it's ironic that Ashley should have recourse to this particular barb in a newspaper column of such poor quality.
Ed does need friends in the media. But perhaps not this one.
*UPDATE: I now understand where Ashley gets her six months vs six months statistic from. I apologise to her for assuming she'd misremembered something. However, her summary of the polling data is very misleading. If you look at the 2011 figures you'll see that Miliband has been consistently behind Cameron on the "Are you satisfied...?" question. In fact he's been behind every month, even during the glory weeks of News International. But it's also true that, for most months, Cameron has had a higher dissatisfaction rating than Miliband, even as he bests him on satisfaction. In other words, more people have an opinion on Cameron than Miliband - they care more, either way. But this allows Ashley to point to six months earlier in the year where Cameron's net satisfaction (satisfaction minus dissatisfaction) is lower than Miliband's. You can decide how significant that is. To get a fuller picture, though, note that Miliband has consistently trailed Cameron not just in terms of absolute satisfaction but on key leadership qualities: having a vision, being capable, good in a crisis etc. He is also less popular with his party than Cameron is with his. I doubt that anyone except Jackie Ashley would look at this picture and conclude that Cameron and Miliband are, as she puts it, "even stevens".