Ed Miliband and Me
October 3, 2010 1 Comment
Fun fact: I once had dinner with Ed Miliband. And, on another occasion, played with his BlackBerry when we were both at a picnic on Regent’s Park.
I point this out not to show off – or at least, not purely for that reason. Rather, to illustrate just how rapidly he has risen – and share some thoughts on his suitability for the position he’s ascended to.
I first became aware of Ed Miliband in the autumn of 2003. As you may now, Ed (I sense that people are going to refer to him generally as ‘Ed’ rather than ‘Miliband’) spent 2003-4 teaching at Harvard University. This is widely-known because it meant that he was out of the UK and away from Government around the time of the Iraq war, which has helped him no end since.
I was studying at Harvard in 2003-4. Not long after I arrived, the campus was covered overnight with posters advertising a course called “What’s Left?” and subtitled something like ‘the future of social democracy in Europe.’ And by covered, I mean plastered. The bloody things were everywhere. Advertising for courses, especially new courses, is common at the start of the year at Harvard like elsewhere. But there were three or four of these for any one of anyone else’s.
The course, needless to say, was being run and taught by one E. Miliband. He’s David Miliband’s brother, someone explained. I was only dimly aware of David Miliband, so the existence of his brother didn’t particularly excite me, and I didn’t take the course. But I was told the first lecture was literally overflowing ,with over 500 prospective students turning up. “Crikey,” Ed apparently said when he walked in. “I guess advertising does work.”
A few weeks later, a friend of mine who did do Ed’s course arranged for us – the British grad student contingent – to go out for dinner with him. He was, bluntly, spectacularly unimpressive. He was pleasant, friendly, with a slight aloofness that transparently arose more from shyness than any wish to maintain distance. But, my God, he was dull. Nobody expects a senior special adviser, as he was then, to be a scintillating wit. But Ed really was strikingly lacking in casual conversation. Normally Labour politics nerds can talk about football, or where they’re from when trying to avoid politics as a topic. Conservatives will talk about opera or their holidays or their investments (I’m generalising, but less than you might think). But Ed? Nothing. He seemed a nice, shy, geeky wonk.
Don’t get me wrong- in a group of Harvard grad students, this didn’t stick out. (Indeed, I myself was an insufferably pretentious little shite back then, and remember tipsily regaling Ed with my predictions for the British political landscape.*) But if you had said to me then that Ed would become an MP, I’d have been surprised. If you’d said he’d become first a minister, and then Labour leader, I’d have laughed out loud.
Two years later, I went to a picnic in Regent’s Park organised by the same friend who’d arranged the dinner. I’d seen Ed’s Parliament email address on the email arranging the event, and smirked to myself, thinking ‘there’s no way he’ll turn up.’ He was, after all, an MP by this point, and expected to quickly become a minister. But there he was, relaxing with loose acquaintances ten years his junior. He seemed fractionally more at ease with himself; hardly surprising, given his rise in status and no longer being in abroad. But he still seemed rather ineffectual.
At one point I noticed his BlackBerry lying on the grass. I’d never seen one before, and absent-mindedly picked it up and fiddled with it a bit. Then it dawned on me that it probably had, you know, emails from the Chancellor on it. “Sorry,” I said, handing it to him, “there’s probably things on here I shouldn’t see.” He waved to say, carry on. “Not really,” he said slightly ruefully.
These two sides to Ed have both been on display in the last few months. His campaign, with its frank stream of denunciations of New Labour policy and its slow chipping away at David’s lead, reflected the quiet determination with which Ed won himself an overflowing lecture theatre for his first Harvard class. But when he unexpectedly won, and took the stage looking as terrified as a kid before an A-level exam; when he paused for several seconds before tentatively beginning his career as Labour leader with a quietly mumbled address “conference;” all the way through that speech and much of Tuesday’s, to be honest, all I could see was the shy, aloof, geeky, uncomfortable man from the dinner party, a man with clearly a significant intellect but very little to actually say for himself.
What are we to make of this? Despite its supposed obsession with surface and personality, the press has spent comparatively little time in the last week discussing Ed’s looks, voice and mannerisms, choosing to focus instead on his supposedly leftwing leanings and his beholdenness-or-otherwise to the unions. But I’m sure that to any regular citizen watching on Saturday, their primary impression would not be ‘who is that dangerous unionist?’ but ‘who is that ugly man with the nasal voice?’
Those who supported Ed swear that he is a better ‘communicator’ than his brother. David is a policy geek, they argue, getting bogged down in the details, while Ed’s speeches have narrative and vision. This may be true, although David’s (what to make of the fact that Edward is always Ed but David is never Dave?) valedictory speech on Tuesday showed he has developed a knack for the ‘vision thing’ himself over the last few months.
I’ve never met David Miliband and only seen him speak once or twice, so I can’t judge in too much detail. But I suspect these people are confusing the brothers’ words with their delivery. Ed may, on paper, give better speeches. But he gives them badly. He pauses at inappropriate moments; he looks still and dead much of the time, though he usually perks up at the end; he pulls faces. My god, does he pull faces. I tried to watch his acceptance speech on YouTube earlier in the week, but the connection was slow, so I only got a frame a second or so. Each second, Ed was pulling a different, ridiculous face. And, of course, he closes his eyes a bewildering amount. As I watched the speech on Tuesday I had a horrible feeling The Sun would use a picture of him with his eyes closed the next day, and they duly did.
I am being a tiny bit flippant, but really only slightly. Journalists tend to talk about Blair’s electability primarily in terms of Labour’s move to the centre, and that’s all well and good. But Blair was also attractive because he was normal looking, a passionate speaker, confident in his own skin, and seemed to have a life outside politics. His claims to like the Foo Fighters and football may have been a pretence, but it was a pretence that was quite important.
By contrast, when Ed was asked on ITV’s Daybreak what music he likes, he mumbled something about ‘embarrassing cheesy 80s’. The aren’t-I-an-old-fuddy-duddy approach is fine for older politicians or those – like David Cameron – who need to present themselves primarily as pragmatic and serious. But if Ed is serious about his ‘new generation’ angle, and wants to grasp the mantle of energy and reform, he needs to seem unapologetically well-rounded.
Does all this mean Labour chose the Wrong Brother? I fear it might. But, as they say, we are where we are. What matters now is that Ed has not only to carefully control his political message in order to bury ‘Red Ed’ and appeal to the mainstream. He must also work hard, quickly, on his basic presentational skills. Gordon Brown tried to turn his looks and demeanour to his advantage, suggesting it showed him to be a man of substance rather than style – “not flash, just Gordon,” as the planned campaign for the election-that-never-was had it. But this approach never worked, and the British people’s lack of affection for Brown meant they could switch to contempt for him almost overnight. Grudging respect is easily lost.
If Ed is smart, he’ll recognise that presentation matters. The danger is that because of years of newspaper headlines complaining about spin, Miliband has come to the conclusion that caring about presentation is a Blairite folly. He must recognise that it’s not inherently conservative or fraudulent about to try to appear likeable and attractive. If the public’s perception of you gets in the way of their perception of what you say, it must be addressed.
Ed must surround himself, as Blair did, with the best experts on body language, on vocal tone, on dress. He must wear better-fitting suits. He must try to modulate the nasal tone of his voice. Granted, leaders in the past – notably William Hague – have been made to look ridiculous by following the advice of their presentational gurus too closely. But that, frankly, is the fault of poor advisers. In the Blair era, Labour had the best presentation advice in the business.
The survivors of the Blair era may feel concern, or worry, or anguish, about Ed’s victory. They will probably, once he is settled in, resist the temptation to snipe from the sidelines about policy for the most part. And they should. But this is where they can helpfully contribute. Take this shy, wonkish man, and introduce him to the very best of New Labour’s presentational team. Not to spin policy, but to normalise the messenger a bit.
If not, ‘Odd Ed’ might prove a much more serious problem for Labour than ‘Red Ed’ could ever be.
*Michael Howard had just been elected Tory leader. I predicted he would bring about a mild revival in the Conservatives’ fortunes, and that Labour would win the 2005 election but lose the one after that. I was right about the overall trajectory, but wrong about Howard.