Ed Miliband tried to reframe the unflattering debate about his personal leadership by presenting himself as a man of principle who is liable to lose out toDavid Cameron at the next election if the campaign is about image rather than ideas.
In a confessional speech about the general election, Miliband said: “If you want the politician from central casting, it’s not me, it’s the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me.”
The speech, held in London on Friday, was risky, since it is almost an explicit admission that his negative personal ratings may be a barrier to Labour’s election next year. His team believes the electorate can be persuaded to think that the more thoughtful, consensual talents he may possess are more important to modern political leadership.
“I believe that people would quite like somebody to stand up and say there is more to politics than the photo op,” Miliband said.
His critics will claim he is trying to make a virtue of his failure to connect with voters, but his allies argue generations of glib retail politics had bred cynicism, and Miliband can at least win respect for offering a different kind of leadership.
The speech tried to recast him, potentially building some defences ahead of the personal assault likely to be mounted by the Conservatives in the campaign.
Miliband’s personal ratings have trailed behind those of his party and in June fell to the lowest ever recorded in an ICM-Guardian poll. Cameron’s ratings were also down.
The latest YouGov polling shows that by more than four-to-one, voters regard Miliband as weak rather than strong and by three-to-one they say he is not up to the job of prime minister. On both measures, Cameron scores more positive than negative responses.
And, making reference to his unfortunate attempt at eating a bacon sandwich in public, he conceded: “David Cameron is a very sophisticated and successful exponent of an image-based politics.
“I am not going to able to compete with that. And I don’t intend to. I want to offer something different.
“It is no surprise that people think that politicians only care about the photo op, how we look, or how we are presented, and not about substance.
“Because so often the terms of trade of politics – the way it is discussed and rated – has become about the manufactured, the polished, the presentational. This is not new but it has got worse.
“Politicians have fuelled it. The media feed it, but this political culture is a disaster for the country. Because let’s face up to something: this has become a game that fewer and fewer people are watching, or believing.
“The public’s antennae for the artificiality, the triviality, the superficiality of politics is more highly tuned than ever. And unless we stand up and say that we want to offer the public something different, more and more will simply turn off.”
He said Cameron “made his name as leader of the opposition for some fantastic photos, like hanging out with huskies in the Arctic Circle. I congratulate him for it”.
He added: “Even my biggest supporters would say I haven’t matched him on that. I didn’t set out to do it when I became leader, and I haven’t done so.
“And it’s not just that I haven’t tried to do it, it’s not where my talents lie either – as you may have noticed.”
Aware that he will face the charge of hypocrisy, Miliband, who will shortly appoint a new broadcast officer, admitted: “Image and pictures matters and counts for all of us. And I care about it. And I have a team who work for me on these things.”
“But I am not from central casting,” he insisted. “You can find people who are more square-jawed, more chiselled, look less like Wallace. You could probably even find people who look better eating a bacon sandwich.”
He said that for him the gold standard of leadership is “someone with big ideas and the sense of principle needed to stick to those beliefs and ideas even when it is hard and with the decency and empathy to reach out to people from all backgrounds, all walks of life”.
But he conceded: “Let me say right at the outset: I will sometimes fall short of that gold standard.”
He argued that if “leaders chase every passing bandwagon, they will be found out”.
Labour, he claimed, has by contrast built its policy on the basis of deep thinking and concepts such as responsible capitalism that might take as long as a decade to achieve.
But he argued that such reforms “will require a leadership that is prepared to stand up for the weak against the powerful whether this is the banks, the energy companies or Rupert Murdoch”.
He admitted he has been inconsistent in his efforts to stand up to the powerful, saying pressures to compromise come every day. “I know, especially for people on Merseyside, me holding up a copy of the Sun was one of those days,” he said. “It was my responsibility. Politics is a hard business to get right. But consistency matters.”
But he insisted that “if principle simply becomes replaced by expediency, then all it does is add further to cynicism”.
Probing deeper into his weaknesses, he admitted some of his phrases such as “responsible capitalism” do not make a great soundbite on the doorstep. But he argued the public get alienated by politicians who do not stick to their guns, “like when someone hugs a huskie before an election and then says they are going to cut the green crap after it. Or hugs a hoodie before an election and then says they should be locked up afterwards”.
Miliband argued that “just as ideas are the most underrated commodity in politics, decency and empathy are the most underrated virtues”.
“My true test of leadership is not just whether you look the part but whether you can retain your soul. Not being dismissive or contemptuous of people, whoever they are, wherever they come from,” he said.
“But I believe tough decisions don’t mean we have to leave our empathy and decency at the door. In fact, the opposite is true. If we are to govern for the whole country, if we are to get policy right, listening is an essential part of leading. This openness to others isn’t the style of leadership we’ve grown used to, or the style of leadership we celebrate. But it is what I aspire to as a person and as a politician.”
He also offered himself as a man with a skill to create consensus – something Miliband has undeniably achieved over the past three years inside his surprisingly united party.
“I will stand up to the banks, the energy companies and other powerful forces. But I will also seek to bring them with us in the process of change.
“Because I think all of the lessons of history are that we are stronger as a country when we can unite together with a common purpose.”