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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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