By Dr Matthew Ashton
Years ago the British historian and academic Peter Hennesey suggested the model of the modern British prime minister would include the best qualities of their predecessors. It included things like the dedication of Peel, the word-power of Churchill, and the sleep requirements of Thatcher. The trouble is, of course, it would be impossible to find all these attributes in one person. Humans aren't like that.
However while these may be considered the skills and qualities needed to do the job, they're not necessarily the same as those required to get elected. In our increasingly media obsessed age, rightly or wrongly, we prize things like authenticity, passion and charisma over ideas or even competency. Scarily we're heading towards a point where being seen as an intellectual is actually an electoral liability.
Miliband is faced with this dilemma. In the USA, Obama's personal ratings are significantly better than his party's. Miliband seems to be stuck with the opposite problem where the British public currently prefer his party to him. Partly it's a question of policies; simply put, Miliband needs some. At the moment he's coasting on his critique of the government and the same vague aspirations all politicians trot out when questioned. There's almost no point saying you're in favour of fairness, justice and liberty. Who isn't? But his more immediate challenge is his presentation.
Possibly Miliband's biggest problem is his perceived lack of passion. I have absolutely no doubt that he is passionate about the issues he talks about, it just doesn't come across on screen. This is partly a fault shared with former PM John Major. Plenty of commentators, both during his time in power and after, said Major came across much better one-on-one and in small groups than he ever did on TV. Up close people felt the personal warmth and passion. In other arenas, he came across as the man in grey with the monotone voice.
It doesn't help that Miliband seems to be doing his best to mimic Tony Blair's speech patterns and body-language to the point where he comes across as a bad imitator. Blair wasn't the first leader to realise that these things mattered in terms of public perception; Thatcher took lessons to try to improve her speaking voice. However Blair took it to a whole new level and as a result almost everyone could parody him at a drop of a hat. The BBC 4 radio show Deadringers hit the nail on their head with their version of Blair who also read his own stage directions: 'PEOPLE... of Britain -- (insincere smile, sweaty forehead) -- I speak to you today on the matter of an abject Cabinet betrayal -- (angry eyebrows, pointy finger!)'. It's almost like a disease that swept Westminster, where all a politician had to do was to shake hands with Blair to start copying his hand movements. Miliband desperately needs to find his own style.
His second problem is his relative lack of charisma and presence; something Boris Johnson has in spades. Unfortunately, unlike passion, charisma simply can't be faked, you've either got it or you haven't. In its absence Miliband should concentrate on affability which is easier to get away with, and looking relaxed. At the moment whenever he appears on TV it looks like he's got a steel rod in his jacket to make him sit up straight. Equally he should stay away from jokes, or find himself a joke writer that better fits his style. A good joke badly delivered can be worse than no joke at all.
The final issue is one of authenticity. Increasingly politician's life-stories matter in terms of the narrative they hope to get across. In the same way X-factor contestants have to parade their sob stories up and down on stage in order to elicit public sympathy, our political leaders have to offer up their own examples to prove that they've had it tough as well. As a result political interviews have almost become a parody of Monty Python's Four Yorkshireman sketch with our increasingly middle-class and wealthy politicians desperate to prove that they too had a difficult childhood. It's not quite got to a point where they're talking about walking miles to school in the snow with no shoes, but we're not far off. If an MP spent one year at a comprehensive and eight years at a private school, it's the comprehensive that gets mentioned in the election materials and interviews.
While Miliband did attend a comprehensive, the rest of his life has been spent almost entirely within the political world, so his ability to talk about real life is constrained at best. Luckily he's up against Cameron who's background is even more privileged than his, so it's less of a problem.
The trouble is Miliband now has a limited amount of time to do something about his presentation issues before public opinion crystallises. At the moment astonishingly large numbers of people still don't seem to realise that he's the Labour party leader or could even pick him out of a line-up. He needs to do more to change that. Some in the party might urge him to stick to ideas, but I don't think that's enough anymore. People don't just need to believe in your ideas, they need to believe in you.
George W Bush partly beat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election because he had the greater likability factor. More Americans wanted to go and have a drink in a bar with him. I'm not sure Miliband's ever going to be able to do that, but he could convince people they'd like to make small talk with him in a lift that would be a start.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.
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