I’m going to make a controversial statement: there are no really charismatic or uncharismatic politicians in Britain in 2014, only those which buy off the media and the interests behind it and those who do not. Few are the opportunities for them to make their case directly to a wide audience, the last being the election debates of 2010, the result of which being an outbreak of Cleggmania- Clegg being perhaps better described as a man of superficial charm than charisma. Look how that one turned out. The rest of the time the public perception of the attributes of political leaders is based upon a construct, manufactured from a selection of sound bites from speeches and snapshots from hours of footage of public appearances, filtered through a media lens.
The ur-charming politician was Tony Blair, imbued with the charm and unwavering self-belief of the narcissist. He also courted the media, firstly through never rocking the boat too much with the interests of media owners- Peter Mandelson famously saying he was “intensely relaxed about people getting very rich,” and secondly directly exemplified by his visit to Rupert Murdoch at Hayman Island in 1995. Michael Woolf, wrote on Guardian Comment Is Free after Blair’s appearance at the Leveson enquiry:
“Blair was right in his testimony: Murdoch isn’t out to cut deals with his political allies. He’s not lobbying. Yes, he’ll expect to be able to call on you if need be (for a deal as big as BSkyB, for instance), but mostly, he’s looking for a much more pervasive sense of comfort and confidence. What he wants is: 1) access – a near-constant availability to him, his executives, and his editors; 2) receptivity – you’ve got to take the Murdoch worldview into account; treat it seriously; cross it cautiously; and understand the power behind it.”
It also must be said that in the mid-nineties, with the Conservatives apparently dead in the water after 18 years of government, the newly amenable Blair’s Labour was the only game in town. Courting it, in return, would have seemed the most sensible strategy for the Media, with Murdoch in particular known for liking to pick a winner, as described in Nick Davies’ fantastic Flat Earth News. As times got more difficult for the Blair Government, through successive terms they would adopt new tactics of ruthlessly controlling media coverage and appearances, and indulging in squalid deals with the tabloids. As his successor Gordon Brown would go on to be monstered by the press, Blair would become the mould for a media- palatable politician, even down to his appearance: tall, dark, male, forties, reasonably conventionally attractive. Clegg came from this mould, as did David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party, and subsequently Prime Minister.
Enter the main subject of this article one Edward Samuel Miliband . Once upon a time he held a middle-ranking post in the Brown Government, as Climate Change Secretary, having been elected to Parliament in 2005. He seems to have done a competent job of it, too. Respected by campaigners, he attracted praise for his role in salvaging a deal from the abortive Copenhagen Climate talks of 2009. He didn’t break the Blair mould for the tall, dark, conventionally attractive leader (don’t laugh men in the audience), an audience member sent him a note, asking him out on a date the day after sparring with him on Question Time. After Labour’s qualified defeat at the General Election in 2010, and Gordon Brown’s resignation, the race was on for the role of the new Labour leader. The immediate frontrunner seemed to be Miliband’s elder brother David. Having held a senior role as Foreign Secretary, with a ”Blair model” appearance, and already having been mooted as a challenger for the leadership while Brown was still in office, the elder Miliband seemed the natural candidate. The only problem was his association with the Blairite faction, widely seen to be discredited amongst the Labour grassroots. Enter brother Ed. Ed not only came from the same mould as David Miliband, he was actually related to him, but professing a more left of centre set of views (although we shouldn’t get carried away: there are Conservative leaders of the twentieth century who were more left wing than Ed Miliband is, but nevertheless he offers a slight rebalancing of the political spectrum compared to what has recently been the norm). Having seen them in person, during the leadership contest, they both came across as politician-y in their own way- contrary to his public image it was Ed Balls who came across as the most down to earth, but with too much baggage to become the frontman, the other candidates hardly registered. If David Miliband was the natural continuity candidate, Ed Miliband was his natural opponent. With the help of affiliate members he won by the narrowest of majorities.
As Labour leader, he has had some interesting things to say about, for example, predistribution, which were never really widely reported. He also made some bold and astute decisions in, for example, pressing for the institution of the Leveson enquiry, in response to the renewed revelations of phone hacking and, albeit perhaps, somewhat unwittingly, preventing an intervention in Syria that was barely planned and ill thought through. With a new leader in place and with the help of Lib Dem voters alienated by their former party’s enthusiastic participation within the coalition and, particularly, by the tuition fees reversal, the Labour party secured a sustained period of poll leads, sometimes into double figures, and gains in successive council elections. This was barely reported, and never pulled together into a sustained narrative about the implications for the Conservatives. Instead a pattern would soon emerge where any temporary softening of the Labour lead renewed attacks on the party and its leadership.
The main offenders, in this regard, were sections of the press nominally sympathetic to the Labour party, notably the Guardian’s political team Patrick Wintour and Nick Watt. Wintour, according to one commenter on Labour List, played in New Labour networking football team the “Red Menace,” while Watt, perhaps revealingly, wrote a hagiography for New Labour stalwart Scottish Labour Party leadership candidate, Jim Murphy. The most recent round of sniping has been heralded by a narrowing of Labour’s poll lead, with occasional crossover to narrow Conservative leads, brought about by UKIP eating into core Labour support in England and significant loss of support to the SNP in Scotland due to lingering bitterness after the referendum and the acrimonious resignation of former Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont. The former of these two factors, Blairite New Labour have absolutely no answer to and the latter they are almost suicidal in their failure to grasp the reasons behind – boosting Murphy as the “clear favourite,” apparently for no more reason than “because they said so,” with Murphy, unlike David Miliband having no real history of being tipped as leader before Lamont’s resignation. The Guardian for example headlined an article on unions’ backing of Neil Findlay for Scottish leader with “unions refuse to back Jim Murphy.” The internal snipers did little to nothing to press home the Party’s advantage when they were achieving double digit poll leads. Instead, however large the lead it would be declared not enough “at this point in the election cycle.” The same narrative would be sustained through Labour gains in successive Council elections, reaching an apex in 2014 with the media including the BBC identifying the major issue of those elections being Labour’s admittedly modest gains rather than the serious losses for both coalition parties.
The conservative press meanwhile has done its best to push the calamity Ed Miliband narrative, primarily through the medium of unflattering photographs: an inevitability for any politician appearing in public, “in the wild,” for any length of time, with neither of the other Party leaders being any slouch in that department, although you would have to go on line to find out (particularly for David Cameron). Neither, for that matter, is David Miliband, who carries the twin virtues, in the eyes of the divide and conquer right of being slightly more closely aligned to them politically and, crucially, not currently leader of the Labour Party (it would naïve to believe that their reverence would continue if he were, in the presence of the real thing as a viable alternative).
Thus they have done their level best to convince the general public that “man grimaces while eating a bacon sandwich” is a major political event and similarly, an unflatteringly angled photo of Miliband dropping some change at a homeless woman. Most recently, footage of Miliband listening patiently, and with a forced deadpan, to singer Myleene Klass moaning about her potential tax bill, before giving a considered response, on a London only debating programme, was cut to suggest that he had been reduced to silence by her devastating arguments and widely hyped. To offer some balance the BBC has recently reported on the “CameronMustGo” Twitter hashtag and has correctly been criticized for it. “Labour activists create hashtag” isn’t really news, after all, but then neither is a lot of the Conservative activists efforts that are regularly treated reverently. Meanwhile George Osborne’s appearance at last weeks Prime Minister’s Questions, last week, went virtually unreported.
What can Labour Party supporters do about all this? Unfortunately not much: media bias is what it is. However what they definitely should not do is fall into the traps laid out for them by Conservatives and their media allies: firstly in going down political paths that would not help them electorally and would not be rewarded by the media in the presence of a viable real Conservative alternative and secondly in giving succour to the narrative that Ed Miliband is uniquely awful and the source of all their difficulties. They need to keep plugging away, using whatever opportunities arise to present their case to the public, and also trust the public to be receptive to relatively complex messaging avoiding being backed into a safezone of motherhood and apple pie that only frustrates the public more. Most important of all is to maintain a united front.