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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.