Ed Miliband’s public image is under pressure once again. Front pages are once again spattered with more bad polling news, coming off the back of the Labour leader’s lacklustre performance in parliament on budget day.
Miliband managed to address not one specific measure announced by George Osborne, and instead relied on the slogans he’s been rehearsing for the 2015 electoral campaign. While some MPs and commentators acknowledged the difficulty of reacting to a whole range of policies that had just been announced, the truth is a party leader should be able to ad-lib on the spot.
And even if a weak showing on budget day means little in itself, Miliband’s performance was a reminder of his chronic image problems. Ever since the early days of his leadership, he has failed to impress voters; his poll ratings have long been so abysmal that only his top advisers are allowed to talk about them.
Labour tries to dismiss Miliband’s troubles by saying that what matters is the party’s long-held but apparently declining poll lead. However, the quasi-presidential nature of British political life, where the popularity of party leaders is assumed to determine MPs’ success or failure at the ballot box, means that Miliband’s team cannot afford to ignore his dismal profile.
Red, nerdy and weak
Miliband’s standing is undercut by various factors; the most obvious one is his politics. For the majority of the British press, his “turning of the page” on the New Labour blueprint proved to be simply too much to stomach. Miliband was widely derided as “Red Ed” during the 2010 leadership campaign, and the sobriquet stuck – despite the fact that his views are in fact more mainstream social-democratic.
Taking this to its logical extreme, papers such as the Daily Mail have tried their hardest to tie Miliband to the politics of his father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband. And even if the Mail’s story on “The Man Who Hated Britain” was widely judged to be a step too far, the fact remains that many of the commentariat consider Miliband just too left-wing for 21st century Britain. There’s not much Labour can do about this, except to repeat that the opinions expressed in London-based newspapers won’t decide the 2015 election.
But Miliband and his team must focus on changing the way he comes across to normal British voters. Focus group research has indicated that many voters perceived his persona as awkward, forced and less than prime ministerial. He has also been attacked for his nerdiness; he seems more comfortable discussing policy with Harvard gurus than in the company of normal voters.
His public appearances are not always successful. Though he frequently delivers robust performances at Prime Minister’s Questions against a very skilful David Cameron, Ed Miliband is not a natural orator. He has delivered competent speeches and he has even spoken without notes (now a must in British politics since David Cameron dazzled his own party with a speech without notes in 2005), but his delivery is occasionally flat. On his appearances on radio and on television he tends to look wooden and ill at ease. As he showed on budget day, Miliband does not really react to the live events around him; instead, he seems to speak robotically from a script. He performs much better when speaking from a soap-box on the street, or when addressing an assembly-like live audience – but those moments are seldom broadcast on television.
Of course, charisma cannot be learnt from a textbook, but there are still small changes to the way Miliband carries himself that could greatly improve his image. After all, some of these problems are self-inflicted; his public appearances are relatively rare, and are normally associated with a major speech or a policy announcement. As these announcements do not happen every day, he comes off as a remote leader who runs the party like an academic seminar.
Miliband has refused to play the media game that demands constant photo-ops and soft-focus interviews about his private life that will reveal a normal family man. His “I-won’t-hug-a-husky” attitude suggests that he finds these media interventions demeaning and instead believes he can persuade sceptical British voters to vote Labour by sheer force of argument.
Miliband’s willingness to listen and to debate different ideas is often seen as a sign of weakness and indecision, but this consensual, non-abrasive, and deliberative style of doing politics has in fact served him rather well. While long criticised for what looked like dithering, he has actually managed to get Labour’s various factions to unite around his agenda. In the process, he has proved he can be a ruthless leader as well as a thoughtful listener.
It is true that his style of leadership is totally alien to Westminster’s macho traditions, which prize above all else decisive and authoritative leaders. But considering that in recent years some of these decisive leaders made catastrophic mistakes (the invasion of Iraq comes to mind) and relied far more on their charisma than on truth-telling, Miliband’s consensual and quiet approach might just be what Britain needs – but Labour must decide if it’s what British voters actually want.