Robert Webb: Ed Miliband wants to look normal – but can you imagine him eating a pear?

In a TV interview, you’ve only got time to be one “thing”. Unfortunately, Ed’s “thing” seems to be “politician”.

Imagine Ed Miliband at home on Sunday morning. He’s got his feet up in the front room; he’s hanging out in one of his smart-casual cardigans and chatting amiably with a couple of his friends about what a wanker Andrew Neil is. Justine wanders in with coffee and puts on something relaxing by Coldplay or maybe Acker Bilk. Here is the Labour leader at rest. Ed being normal. The real Ed.

How are we getting on? Is this easy? How about imagining Ed making toast? Does he spread the marge in a weird way? Does he hold the knife like it’s a spoon? Does he make a peculiar face when he gets to the edges? Imagine him eating a pear. Look at the thoughtful way he rotates it in his big fingers and licks the juice. He looks insane, eating that pear. That’s the way a lunatic would eat a pear.

The way people imagine their political leaders is, like it or not, an important factor in how they decide to vote and, indeed, whether they vote at all. Political personalities matter and one of the things we have started to expect of these personalities is that they be “normal”. This is a pity, because being normal is impossible. Especially on TV, which is how we mostly see them.

“Look at how phoney they are,” members of the television news audience say, as they simultaneously update their Facebook page. “Thank God I’m so genuine and multifaceted – look at my nuanced opinions about cheese and how I like both Coldplay and Acker Bilk. I am large[-ing myself up]. I contain multitudes.”

This is a culture in which the authenticity of politicians is habitually traduced by people who devote large sections of their day to carefully compiling and publishing evidence of their own personality. That is the advantage of social media over television: on Facebook, the sheer volume of selective bullshit spreads out until it starts to resemble a self; it’s like expressing a personality through a thousand personalised number plates so nobody notices that you’re the dick who went to the trouble of getting that first one.

In a TV interview, conversely, you’ve only got time to be one “thing”. Whether you’re taking part in a political interview or you’re a celeb on a chat show, you have to choose the “thing” before the “thing” chooses you. David Cameron, for instance, has chosen “reasonable guy”. David Starkey has chosen “spiteful old man”. Tony Blair started out with “everyone’s mate”, before making a late switch to “implacable warmonger”.

Ed Miliband, though . . . Ed’s “thing” seems to be “politician”. It’s not his funny voice or his unfortunate habit of closing his eyes after every phrase as if someone has just burped in his face: those things can’t be helped and don’t really matter. It’s the deliberate body language and the deliberate choices in how he speaks that ring false. He sits motionless and bolt upright like a politician. He steeples his hands like a politician. These are exactly the choices that soap actors make when they’re on a tight schedule and are untroubled by high expectations. On EastEnders, if someone gets surprising news on the phone, the scene ends with them looking at their handset in amazement. No one in real life does that. And no one makes their fingers into a little church to look clever. But we accept the convention and excuse the bad acting as a symptom of the bad writing: if I’m obsessing about Ed Miliband’s performance, it’s because he habitually lumbers himself with a lousy script.

He repeats stock phrases – “the squeezed middle”, “the cost-of-living crisis” – during a single interview in the hope of “getting the message across”, at the expense of “sounding like a person”. It takes iron discipline for a man of his intelligence to do it but it seems that he’d rather sound like a robot and have a sporting chance of getting the desired soundbite on the news than forget about the news and sound like a human being during the interview.

You could say that the way he dishonours his intelligence like this is an insult to our own. Or you could more charitably say that he’s putting the interests of his party before his pride. Either way, in terms of “looking normal”, it’s difficult to like.

This kind of thing brings out the bully in interviewers, as if he’s letting the side down and exposing the political interview for the unbearable travesty it invariably is. The sanguine Andrew Marr is much rattier with Miliband than with anyone else; Paxman is visibly disgusted; John Humphrys presumably just punches him in the head as soon as he walks into the studio.

Look, the Tories are busy dismantling what’s left of the principle and practice of the NHS. They’ve got a large section of the electorate believing that the world recession was caused by Sure Start and the excessive number of public libraries. Their reform of the welfare budget and their attitude to the working poor show a cluelessness bordering on malice. They think everyone has a family home to fall back on. They think people earning more than £150,000 a year need a tax break. These guys look human on TV because we’re pleasantly surprised when they don’t show up with two horns and a trident. In this context, the “normal” reaction is not a diffident bunch of soundbites compiled by anaemic strategists and sack-me-now-so-I-can-go-back-to-teaching speechwriters. The normal reaction is outrage. Labour is at its best when it remembers its moral fury.

Ed Miliband is obviously a mild guy. I don’t expect him to pretend to be a pugilist. His fingers can stay balanced in a tepee of calm if he thinks that looks good. But right now, before he is finally dismissed as “just a politician”, it’s the words that count: for those he seeks to fight for, those words need to take the form of a fist.

Robert Webb is a writer and comedian. Find him on Twitter: @arobertwebb

Ed Miliband with his wife Justine. Photo: Getty

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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