Sunday, September 12, 2010

How the leadership candidates come across

The YouGov poll [£] in today’s Sunday Times puts Ed Miliband very narrowly ahead of his brother, due to a big swing among trade union members. Among the general public, though, things are different.

30% of voters think David Miliband would make the best leader, 16% think Ed and 54% don’t know. The question seems to have excluded the other candidates, but another poll from just over a week ago covered all five. It gave David 19%, Diane Abbott 10%, Ed M 9%, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls 5% each, and 51% don’t know.

There’s obviously no strong public preference: most people know little if anything about the contenders. David Miliband’s profile after three years as Foreign Secretary is still not all that high, reflecting the dominance of the last government by Gordon Brown.

So we’re still painfully short of information about how people think the five come across.

I’ve been waiting for somebody to run some focus groups, showing potential swing voters the candidates in action and finding out what they think; it was a similar exercise in 2005 that first showed how receptive people were to the little-known David Cameron. And now Newsnight has done one [available to view until Sep 15], consisting of 12 people in Bristol who voted Labour in 2005 but not this year.

It’s a very limited sample, and their pre-existing views weren’t checked at the start, and the moderator was a Newsnight reporter rather than a professional market researcher, but it’s something. After hearing from and questioning the candidates, seven of them preferred Burnham and five David Miliband.

Personally speaking, the little I took from the programme was that the more I see of Ed Miliband interacting with people, the more awkward and self-conscious I think he is. His supporters boast that he “speaks human”, but to me he seems more like someone who’s just got a good grade in his GCSE Human. To give him credit, though, he has shed some of his fondness for polysyllabic abstract nouns.

As has David, who is also looking less wonkish than I’d feared. He manages more gravitas than the others, too, but remains in danger of being seen as a second-rate Blair rip-off.

Burnham and Balls probably ‘speak human’ better than the others. Burnham comes across as nicer, and earnest, but maybe a bit wishy-washy, and Balls a more confident, feisty proposition – although, as Paul Sagar cruelly puts it, with “the eyes of a toad and the smirk of a pedophile set free on a legal technicality”. Abbott remains a bad joke. I agree it’s good that the candidates aren’t all white men, and it’s good that the party’s left is represented, but it’s a shame that the person doing all this representing is so manifestly unsuited for the job.

I’m still unsure, so I’ll tune in to the BBC Question Time debate on Thursday, and leave the actual voting as late as I can (deadline for votes by post or online is September 22.

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