Ed Miliband poll collapse: spin doctor Axelrod faces uphill task

Two polls show a sudden drop in Labour support just as Obama's election guru flies into town

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:47 ON Tue 13 May 2014

BARACK OBAMA’s election guru David Axelrod flies in to London today to meet Ed Miliband and his team just as the Labour leader’s poll ratings have fallen through the floor.

Axelrod's imminent arrival had been billed as the moment when Miliband would gain the Obama magic touch. But two new opinion polls make it look like Axelrod is on Mission Impossible.

The ICM poll for The Guardian gives the Tories the lead for the first time in two years: Conservatives 33 (up one), Labour 31 (down six), Lib Dems 13 (up one) UKIP 15 (up four).

The Labour leader said this morning the polls – which come just two days after YouGov gave Labour a seven-point lead - were likely to be an anomaly resulting from the proximity to the European election on 22 May.

“Let’s see what happens in the elections a week on Thursday. I think what some of this reflects is that we are in an unpredictable period in terms of people making up their minds as to how they’re going to vote in these elections in nine days’ time, never mind a year’s time for the general election,” Miliband told BBC Breakfast TV.

“Polls go up and down. I’ve seen that over three-and-a-half years in this job. I think what matters is talking about the bread-and-butter issues people face... We’ll talk about the issues that matter to people, we’ll focus on those questions and then the people are the boss, they’ll make the decisions.”

This rather desperate message was repeated on Radio 4's Today programme by Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, who said "the polls are volatile".

But Labour's attempts to dismiss the ICM findings as a blip look particularly unconvincing because a separate telephone poll for Tory peer Lord Ashcroft also puts the Tories in a two-point lead. Ashcroft's poll has the Tories on 34 per cent against Labour's 32.

The figures that Axelrod will need to focus on are Miliband’s ICM personal ratings. As the Americans say, baby they have bombed: 51 per cent of voters believe he is doing a bad job, twice as many as the 26 per cent who think he is doing well, giving him a net negative rating of -25.

That is the worst rating Miliband has ever received from ICM. Meanwhile, David Cameron and George Osborne’s ratings have risen from big minus figures to plus-two for the Prime Minister and plus-five for the Chancellor. Osborne’s stock in particular has soared since he got minus-25 for the 'Omnishambles' budget in 2012 and it’s all on the back of the economic recovery.

Labour is haunted by the Thatcher/Major years when they built up leads in Opposition only to see them melt away by polling day.

Labour panic would be greater if Axelrod had not been hired: to echo the US President’s favourite soundbite, Axelrod is now being seen by the Miliband camp as the Man Who Can.

Axelrod will meet Miliband today face-to-face for the first time, although as one adviser jokes, they’ve spent so much time on the phone that it will be "more like two pen pals getting a bit more familiar".

Wee Dougie Alexander, Miliband’s strategist, was instrumental in hooking the 59-year-old Chicago professor of politics, who advised Bill Clinton and went on to to help Obama win in 2008 and get re-elected in 2012. 

He is being paid a six-figure sum to advise Miliband on how he can match Obama’s success. But what a baseball-loving American can achieve in Britain with a candidate who clearly lacks either Clinton's or Obama's charisma is open to doubt.

Axelrod's biggest task is to advise Labour on how to win the argument on living standards – the issue Miliband is convinced will decide the election.

The American told The Guardian last month that Labour's political and economic analysis was similar to the central themes deployed in Obama's successful re-election campaign.

He said he had signed up "because I have had some long conversations with Ed Miliband over the course of the past year and it was less about politics, and more about this issue of how in the 21st century you create healthy economies in which opportunity is broadly available, and people can stay ahead of the cost of living".

The worrying factor for Miliband is that his success at proposing popular cost-of-living policy issues such as rent controls and curbing energy price increases has not improved his personal ratings. That suggests there is something wrong in the voters’ view with Ed the Man, rather than Ed the Policy Wonk.

Some of his own MPs say Miliband – a former backroom boy for Gordon Brown - is too geeky, talks political-speak (such as "predator capitalism"), does not connect with ordinary people, and needs to “speak human”.

Miliband may need more than a slick American spin-doctor. Today’s polling evidence suggests he needs a charisma transplant. ·