Election experts

How do you solve a problem like Ed Miliband?

Before it all went horribly wrong. Andrew Matthews/PA

With the latest polls suggesting a slim lead for the Labour Party, the bolstered opposition is facing up to a formidable challenge: that of making its leader likeable.

On one hand, public opinion polls show Labour and its policies have greater public support than the Conservative Party. A majority of voters back Labour’s policies in key areas such as the NHS, minimum wages and energy pricing. On the other, the public is much less keen on its leader, Ed Miliband. While 34% of voters would vote for his party, only 18% believe that Miliband would make the best prime minister. Another poll showed that 41% of voters believe that Miliband is either “very weird” or “somewhat weird”.

David Miliband: Hillary’s a fan. Fiona Hanson/PA

The theme of Miliband’s weirdness has been in wide circulation ever since he won the Labour leadership contest in 2009, beating his brother David. Pollsters continue to carry out surveys comparing him unfavourably to his older brother, whom Hillary Clinton famously described as “tall and dashing” and “vibrant, vital, attractive, smart”.

However, the strange case of the popular party with the unpopular leader may not be as paradoxical as it sounds, and nor is it unprecedented in political history. For example, in the 2000 US presidential elections, voters famously agreed with the policy positions of the Democratic Party opponent, Al Gore, but preferred the personality of his opponent, George W Bush. Voters found Bush more likeable by 60% to 31%, and more honest and trustworthy by 47% to 33%. As history tells us, in that case, personality won out over policy.

This has also been the pattern in British elections, despite its parliamentary system. “The more popular PM candidate has … gone on to win the election in every case, except in 1979 where the Conservatives’ 9% poll lead compensated for Margaret Thatcher’s early poor personal ratings,” wrote Martin Baxter in the Telegraph.

As Britain continues to move in the direction of more personalised politics, this is unlikely to change. And it is easier to attack a party leader – an inevitably flawed human being who is under constant scrutiny – than the complex and varied policies that they represent. For this reason, media coverage of party leaders matters hugely.

Trial by media

Research has long shown us that public opinion can be strongly influenced by media coverage. The established dislike of Miliband resonates with the right-wing media portrayal of the Labour Leader as “Odd Ed” or “Red Ed” – a portrayal which has solidified into conventional wisdom across the media. Toby Young, writing in the Telegraph, exemplifies the systematic vilification of Miliband in listing his “seven weirdest moments”. These included his failed attempt at kissing his wife after his Labour conference speech last summer, his robotic ITV interview, and his lack of knowledge of grocery costs. And, of course, there was that bacon sandwich moment.

Ivor Gaber has written about the Daily Mail’s particularly fervent campaign to discredit Miliband by depicting him as alien, odd, out of touch and extreme in his political views. This campaign included vicious attacks on his father, Ralph Miliband, the distinguished political theorist and sociologist. As Gaber noted:

The Mail has sought to ‘other’ him by presenting him as ‘alien’ — this by constant references to his Jewish background, his upbringing in a wealthy north London intellectual milieu, his supposed extreme left-wing views and his ineffable ‘oddness’ — at least, an oddness as characterised by the newspaper.

In fact, the relentless negative coverage of Miliband has become a theme in its own right, to the extent that his UKIP opponent Nigel Farage leapt to his defence.

“Just look at the way the newspapers cover Ed Miliband. It is really vile. Forget the politics of it, it’s personal ad hominem attacks. It’s nasty,” Farage said during his appearance on ITV’s Loose Women.

From decent Ed to two kitchens Ed

The Labour response has been to attempt to rebrand Miliband as a decent guy who wants to do right by his party and his country – implicitly contrasting him with David Cameron whose Achilles heel is his perceived elitism and favouritism towards the already privileged. Along those lines, Miliband has repeatedly used the language of “decency” to characterise himself in recent public appearances. First, in an exclusive interview with the Guardian, he warned against mistaking his decency for weakness:

I don’t think decency is a weakness if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve got strong convictions. That does go with the ability to listen, to empathise, to reach out to people. The moment you become arrogant, you stop listening, and when you stop listening, you don’t understand what’s actually happening. If people know me as a decent guy who does things his own way, I think that’s incredibly important.

Miliband also appeared on BBC Three’s Free Speech programme to take questions from an audience of young voters. The discussion took in the Labour Party’s position on tuition fees, but also featured questions about Miliband’s resemblance to a cartoon character. “You’re often portrayed as a bit strange, a bit weird … I think you look a bit like Wallace, do you think any of that matters?,” one participant asked.

Miliband’s reply once again foregrounded his self-representation as “decent”. While he acknowledged his perceived charisma deficiency, he sought to recast it as irrelevant to politics.

Miliband’s wife, Justine, was drafted into the charm offensive, giving an interview for the BBC, widely reported across the media. In the interview, she denounced the vicious media attacks on her husband and restated the emerging party line on his decency:

It is not just about Ed but about every single politician who tried to do the right thing despite the personal attacks. I think it is incredibly important that political life stays open to decent, principled people.

The message of Decent Ed was, however, drowned out by yet another moniker. This time, the media took to calling him “Two Kitchens Ed” after it emerged that the kitchen in which the couple were filmed for Justine’s BBC interview was one of two in the Miliband home. The revelation spurred heated speculation about the luxury of the out-of-touch Labour leader’s lifestyle. However, Sarah Vine – Michael Gove’s wife – quipped in the Daily Mail that the kitchen was “bland, functional, humourless, cold and about as much fun to live in as a Communist era housing block in Minsk”. It subsequently emerged that the second – and superior – kitchen was mostly used by the live-in nanny.

Cameron added insult to injury by giving The Sun exclusive access to his gleaming Downing Street kitchen. The paper filmed the prime minister making a sardine sandwich with a dash of mayonnaise, and subsequently eating it in style. A blow-by-blow account in the Independent described how he “flawlessly takes a bite, masterly holding the slice while controlling his jaw muscles, his eyes focused on the task at hand.”

Chancellor George Osborne even had a pot shot during his budget speech. Promoting his government’s new investment in the Internet of Things, he said:

So should – to use a ridiculous example – someone have two kitchens, they will be able to control both fridges from the same mobile phone.

The two-kitchen fracas goes to show the Labour Party faces an uphill battle in its attempt at rebranding Miliband in the face of a well established and dominant media narrative in which he will always be the loser. However, the Decent Ed strategy shows that Labour has realised one important fact, and set about communicating it: Miliband will never be as adept at sandwich-eating as Cameron. But he does have public backing for his party’s policies. Is he decent? The voters will have to decide.

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen would like to acknowledge Steven Buckley for assistance in carrying out research for this column.