Recent opinion polls make truly dreadful reading for Ed Miliband. He’s not just underperforming his party, he is dragging it under. Though ours is a parliamentary, not a presidential system, it is hard to see Labour winning an election with an unelectable leader.
But why is he doing so badly? Lord Ashcroft’s most recent megapoll has an answer: Ed Miliband is “weird”. That, at least, was the spontaneous, if somewhat shamefaced, reaction of those interviewed.
Weird in what way, exactly?
Various factors were mentioned:
Standing against his brother for the leadership.
His apparently reluctant marriage.
His manner of speaking.
I’ll address these in turn.
Firstly, the Miliband vs Miliband issue. This is unfair. Mili-minor was perfectly entitled to stand against Mili-major. It’s no weirder than Serena beating Venus Williams for a Grand Slam title. In fact, it’s less weird: though the Milibands share a family, their respective careers were nurtured in the bosom of rival party factions. Unlike, say, the Kennedy brothers, they weren’t on the same team.
But while we’re still on family matters, let’s deal with Ed’s eventual marriage to Justine. I fully understand those who believe that marriage should come before children. It’s what I believe myself. But millions of people in this country think – and act – differently. Far from being weird, this approach to life is all too typical.
And so finally we come to Miliband’s manner of speaking. We might as well consider this alongside his physical appearance, but carefully distinguish these superficial matters from any weirdness of personality. Ed may be awkward in public, but behind the scenes he’s a personable sort – indeed, an astute builder of relationships.
Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that, on camera, the Labour leader – and aspiring Prime Minister – neither looks nor sounds the part. Which surely means he’s done for.
Or does it?
There no room for complacency here, because, even in our image-conscious times, an ungainly politician can still gain power.
For instance, politics is a notoriously heightist profession, but that didn’t stop Nicholas Sarkozy from reaching the top. Politics is also sexist, reserving its harshest judgements for the physical appearance of female politicians, but that hasn’t held back the defiantly unglamorous Angela Merkel – who, in any case, has more important things to worry about.
My favourite example is that of Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada from 1993 to 2003. Visibly marked by partial facial paralysis, he nevertheless turned this to his advantage, joking that he was one politician who wouldn’t talk from both sides of his mouth.
Perhaps the best role model for Ed Miliband is Jan Peter Balkenende, who was, as you will recall, the Dutch Prime Minister from 2002 to 2010. Balkenende’s bespectacled, boyish appearance provoked mocking comparisons to Harry Potter; nevertheless he managed to see off Wouter Bos – the unusually handsome Dutch Labour leader (unusual, that is, for a politician) – not to mention a nasty flesh-eating bug infection (never a good look).
So, you don’t have to be beautiful to win elections.
Except that, if you’re Ed Miliband, you do. I’ll explain:
When a party is down there are two paths to recovery. One is to admit the truth about your own past failings and to speak the truth about the country’s problems. The Labour Party have obviously decided not to go for that option; so that leaves the second path – plan B, if you like – which is to whip up a tidal wave of hype and ride it all the way. Its advantage over the first path is that intellectual honesty is not required, the disadvantage is that a charismatic leader – such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or Barack Obama – most certainly is.
And that, dear reader, is what’s wrong with Ed Miliband.