by Atul Hatwal
It’s been said that he is the son of Brown and today Ed Miliband made a quintessential Brownite move.
His speech on leadership could have been lifted wholesale from Gordon Brown’s back catalogue. In fact, if it wasn’t quite lifted, it was almost certainly written by some of the same hands that crafted Gordon Brown’s attempt to address his image problem.
Back in 2007, Gordon Brown was struggling against a telegenic Conservative leader. Plus ça change. Brown seemed awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin. The response? “Not flash, just Gordon.” Saatchi & Saatchi designed the poster below and the message was clear: substance over style.
To bolster Gordon’s credentials as a serious but normal kind of guy, his wife was deployed for media opportunities. A Mirror headline trumpeted in 2008 that she was to be Labour’s “secret weapon.”
Fast forward to today and its Ed’s turn to be self-deprecating about his media talents and attack and the emphasis on “photo-opp politics” in contrast to his own sincerity and conviction. And here’s the Huff Post headline for the Justine Thornton interview from 3 days ago, “Could Ed’s wife turn out to be his secret weapon?”
We’ve been here before and we know how this story ends. In fact, its likely to go even less well for Ed than it did for Gordon, for three reasons.
First, Brown was prime minister. Whatever the shortcomings of the politician, the office bestows authority and Gordon Brown’s experience at the top of British politics meant he did have a certain gravitas. The most successful line his team used in this campaign was “no time for a novice.” Not something Ed Miliband can say.
Second, Twitter was not a factor before the last election. It is now. As Ed Miliband delivered his speech, my timeline filled up with his photo-opps, from the 7,000 mile round trip for a photo with president Obama, to this absolute peach from the pasty tax campaign (h/t James Manning),
These pictures, so many pictures, fundamentally cut across Ed Miliband’s narrative. His supporters, such as George Eaton at the New Statesman, point out that its not photo-opps that Miliband is decrying, but those that think they are the most important thing. But this is a nuance too far. If Ed Miliband makes a speech attacking “photo-opp politics”, what do Labour’s media team think is going to happen next?
Either you do them and accept that they are part of the process, or you don’t. Complaining about them, while still doing them, just looks bad. Noone likes to see a politician whine about politics.
Third, the wives don’t help. They make things worse. Both Sarah Brown and Justine Thornton come across as bright, talented women. And both make their husbands seem even more odd.
Their love and support for their partners is touching. But any validation they provide is negated by the contrast between these smart, articulate and photogenic spouses and the awkward and forced demeanour of men like Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.
The reality is that image is important in politics, for good reason. We don’t elect textbooks or policy papers, we elect leaders. Central and essential to leadership is the ability to persuade, explain and instill confidence.
Anyone can look bad in a snap eating a sandwich, the problem for Ed Miliband is what it encapsulates. And all of the fine words about sincerity, the soft focus interviews with Justine, the pleas to look beyond image, will not change the public’s fundamental view about what makes a good leader and whether they think Labour’s leader fits the bill.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut