Forgetting all his affectations (“I happen to believe that…”, “What I’m saying is…”), Ed Miliband was very good on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday. He was disarming, relaxed and confident.
When Marr brought up his poor personal ratings by presenting placards of him dressed as Wallace, Miliband batted him away: “You’re going to show it to me? Excellent. Thank you Andrew, I didn’t realise you’d be bringing me a present. That’s incredibly kind – I’ll show it to my kids.”
When Marr attacked him for dismissing the problems with his image, he smiled calmly, and offered to “keep trying”. When Marr pressed – “But there is an ‘Ed Miliband problem’, isn’t there?” – he laughed. “Well I wouldn’t phrase it that way….”
In other words, he provided exactly the right image of himself. He was calm when criticised, charming in response, and thoughtful throughout.
His central argument – that the “presentational, superficial, [and] trivial” are wrongly “elevated above big ideas, principles, [and] decency” when we judge political leaders – is hard to contest. As one commentator put it, “I agree with Ed – indeed, who couldn’t?”
Of course what matters to someone on a zero-hours contract is whether a leader has “ideas to deal with that”, as Miliband argued, pointing to his policies “on the minimum wage, on housing, on action to deal with those contracts”.
And if politics was more focused on discussing big ideas people probably would be interested in it.
But Miliband’s argument supposes we have the time or enthusiasm to engage. It acts as if we have are interested in breaking down the exact length of waiting times in the NHS, or the comparative performance of free schools, or how the bedroom tax works.
Voters undoubtedly care about these issues. And the media try and make these issues relevant. But there is little indication we actually have the time to engage with and study them directly.
As YouGov-Cambridge’s story tracker showed at the time, fewer than 1 in 12 voters “noticed” the government’s recent reshuffle, let alone the latest developments on welfare, education or the economy. As their more recent data shows below, recent welfare changes made little impression on the public.
The point is that voters make decisions on policy by making snap decisions about leaders. Image matters because it gives us an insight into what someone is like – from the values they are likely to hold to the decisions they are likely to make.
Miliband hasn’t dismissed the importance of presentation. But he does think it is secondary to ideas and issues. His error is acting as if they are unrelated. Given voters don’t have time to engage with specifics, we must make judgements from the way leaders come across.
The speech still may have made sense. It appears to have given him a new, if somewhat resigned, confidence. By criticising the importance of image he appears to have helped his own.
This piece was originally published on the New Statesman on 28 July 2014.