Friday, 7 November 2014

Does it matter that no one likes Ed Miliband?

In another disastrous week for the Labour leader backbenchers have been openly stating what everyone else thinks- that Ed Milliband's effect as leader on Labour's electoral prospects has been and continues to be disastrous. Quite why he has been such a liability seems open to debate amongst political pundits- some say he has surrounded himself with the wrong people, whilst others that he doesn't listen to his advisers. The consensus in the general population though is that he is just too weird to be taken seriously.

My question is, does it matter, and if so why? Although we long ago entered an age of more presidential and personality-based politics (thanks principally to that unholy pair, Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair) the power of a prime minister, let alone a leader of the opposition, personally to effect any change in anything has become minuscule. So large and sophisticated is the machinery of government these days and so surrounded are they by "teams of advisers" that political leaders are probably given a briefing paper on what to have for breakfast. They don't write their own speeches any more (even if they disastrously pretend to have made the whole thing up on the spur of the moment) and every decision, every casual utterance, will have been pored over and studied in advance to gauge its potential political and PR impact.

The age of mass media has made it appear that we are much closer to our political leaders than we used to be- instead of occasionally glimpsing them from the back of a smoke-filled hall at a hustings we see them out jogging, watch their smoothly polished smiles at countless televised "informal visits" and hear them chat disarmingly and personably (or defensively and with a slight nasal whine in the case of our Ed) to TV interviewers from the domestic comfort of Sunday morning sofas. Yet in fact we have probably never been further from them. Every contact with the great unwashed is so carefully choreographed and stage-managed that the authenticity we feel that we are witnessing is all a construct.

We know all this of course, at one level. We know that when David Cameron thumps the lectern and says "I am going to demand my money back" he is not actually going to march into Jean-Claude Juncker's office with a bill for £1.7 billion clutched in his plump pink fingers. What he means is that various treasury mandarins will now rush around cobbling together a form of words that makes it look as though Britain has won massive concessions. When Ed Miliband says to minimum-wage cleaners that "I feel your pain" (or some such bollocks) we know that he is simply doing his inadequate best to emote with a line that one of his team of speechwriters has determined will sell well with that particular sector of the electorate.

And yet we persist in sort of believing that it is the leader of a political party who, more or less single-handedly, determines the electoral success of that party and (if elected) the prosperity and international reputation of the entire country. In recent news broadcasts I have begun to notice how, in EU negotiations newsreaders and commentators use the phrase "Britain believes that..." or similar, when what they mean is "David Cameron's advisers have told him that he really ought to pretend to believe that..."

This process of embodiment of the nation is nothing new of course. It is always easier to imagine a single leader doing something than getting our heads around the complex and messy process that actually went on. Historians routinely say things like "The castle was built by King ..." when I am pretty sure that the king in question would not have known one end of a trowel from another.

We have always needed to "put a face to" large, complex or abstract ideas and processes. George Orwell understood this- in 1984 the phrase is not "The State is watching you," but "Big Brother is watching you." and it is the ease with which the (fictional) Big Brother can be imagined as a real human with a real face that gives the phrase its power. This seems to be hard-wired in us: I remember once reading of a psychological experiment that showed that incidents of deviant or anti-social behaviour (such as theft) reduce markedly in the presence of a poster which features a pair of eyes.

Nowadays mass media has intensified and focussed this process. Ask anyone to think about one of the UK's political parties and they will imagine variously an overfed and smoothly pink weirdo (Steve Bell's salami in a condom), an affably laughing weirdo with a pint, a crooked-nosed weirdo with haunted eyes or... (no, they might actually struggle with the Lib Dems). These have become literally the human faces of the parties they purport to lead, and are realer to us than those parties' actual policies.

All of which is ironic of course, because each human face is (as far as their advisers and PR men are capable of making them) an entirely artificial construct. David Cameron is no more authentically enraged by EU politics than he was authentically concerned about the environment or the plight of misunderstood hoodies. Nigel Farage is an urbane politician, well practiced in the art of milking the EU cow for funds and Ed Miliband is... Well, to be honest his human face is the most authentic of the lot really. Teachers I knew at Haverstock school described him as a frightened little geek who spent all his time hiding in the library. Plus ca change, eh?

So modern-day politics is about personalising and embodying the message so that the populace can relate to it, and that is something Ed Miliband is manifestly crap at. But does this matter? You could argue that the modern presidential style of politics turns the vital business of running the country into a personality contest and that focus on style over substance trivialises politics. Or you could argue on the other hand that what this reveals is our need as a species to engage with each other's essential humanity. The policies of political parties are vague, waffly and (especially in the case of the Lib Dems) inconstant things. So how can we really be expected to become exercised about them? Political leaders though- well they are human beings, and so in a vital sense open to our genuine human scrutiny. We can look into our political leaders' eyes and (without really listening to their words) ask ourselves, "Do I trust this person? Do I like him or her?"

Or we think we can. In fact another fascinating psychological experiment I read about had an actor tell both the truth and lies to participants, who had to guess which was which. The twist was that one set of participants got only the words, delivered as if on the radio, whilst the other could see the actor's face too, as on the TV. The results were conclusive. One group was far better than the other at telling the truth from lies, with the poorly performing group telling truth from lies less than 50% of the time.

So which group was it that was more easily duped? The ones with the TV pictures of course. The ones who could look deep into the actor's eyes and use their essential human connection with them. But use it not to make an informed decision, but to fall deeper into the fiction the actor was trying to create for them.

So yes, it does matter that Ed Miliband is utterly crap at convincing people that he is telling the truth and that he has the prescription for a healthy, prosperous and egalitarian Britain. But it really, really, really shouldn't

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