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It's not about Englishness, it's about the meaning of Ed

The Labour leader wants to challenge preconceptions about what a Prime Minister is supposed to look and sound like.

Ed Miliband and Justine Thornton

Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday on English identity and the Union attracted a good deal of attention and commentary. (Some of it is reworked in an op-ed for today’s Telegraph.) Inevitably, it has divided opinion – the spectrum ranges from those who think it was a superficial intervention on an important subject to those who think it was an important intervention on a superficial subject. In the middle will be quite a few who are cautiously intrigued and made curious to hear more, which is enough of a win for Miliband. No-one is going to agree on the precise meaning of Englishness and how it interacts with Britishness and no politician is going to satisfactorily resolve the issues in one speech.

The theme is to be developed over the coming weeks and months and woven into a discussion of wider and more pertinent policy themes. A big speech on immigration – an obvious question raised by the discussion of national identity and tricky terrain for Labour – is, I learn, coming up soon. The intention is to engage with public anxiety on the subject, building on some of the points in the Englishness/Britishness debate, but without reaching for the obvious bemoaning of un-policed borders coupled with blood-curdling pledges to crack down that have become the political default setting whenever the topic is broached.

Meanwhile, I suspect Team Ed will just be glad that so many people are chattering about a topic their man placed on the agenda. Starting the conversation instead of reacting to events is one of the trickier aspects of opposition. One passage of the speech that leapt out at me, however, was not his discussion of what it means to be English or what it means to be part of the United Kingdom, but what it means to be Ed Miliband:

This is who I am. The son of a Jewish refugee and Marxist academic. A Leeds supporter, from North London. A baseball fan. Somebody who looks a bit like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. If spin doctors could design a politician, I suspect he wouldn’t look like me.

This is not just a casual joke to warm up the audience. The self-deprecation comes naturally to Miliband but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also very carefully considered. Miliband’s strategists long ago came to the conclusion that he will struggle to compete with David Cameron in a Presidential-style beauty contest election. Focus groups of voters have reported difficulty seeing in the Labour leader the kind of qualities that, according to conventional wisdom, are exuded by a man striding purposefully towards Downing Street. Miliband does not, so the thinking goes, resemble the Prime Minister from central casting and attempts to make him act, sound and perform like one fall flat. “He is at his worst when trying to do a Blair or a Cameron,” concedes one aide.

So the plan is to challenge perceptions of what constitutes the obvious image of a Prime Minister – to own and subvert the jibe that Miliband looks a bit like Wallace until it becomes a kind of advantage. The thought the Labour leader’s team want to trigger in voters’ minds is something along the lines of: “Yes, he doesn’t necessary conform to conventional expectations of a PM, but these are unconventional times and, besides, we have a smooth performer in Cameron - slick, confident, classic leadership material according to the rule book - and he tuned out to have no substance, out of touch ..” etc. (Team Ed are very keen on projecting the idea of “ripping up the rules” of conventional politics.)

The strategy is not without risk. Embracing the idea that the Labour leader is a bit of a geek might not do him any favours. The message, as one friend of Miliband jokes affectionately, has to be more dynamic than “Ed: the guy who will help Britain with its homework.”

But the current thinking around the leader is that he might as well promote what he is instead of trying to be something he isn’t. In an age of ferocious cynicism about politics, authenticity is the most precious commodity a candidate can have. There is, of course, a tricky contradiction involved in the whole business of spinning authenticity – a paradox in itself. There are painful memories in the Labour camp of trying something similar with Gordon Brown. “Not Flash, Just Gordon” – was the slogan for a while. It worked, up to a point. The comparison is flimsy, though. The two men have vastly different personalities and campaign in vastly different circumstances. Brown was a deeply unpopular incumbent; Miliband a largely unknown challenger.

Expect more of those self-deprecating little jokes, asides and riffs about the cliches of conventional politics and what a PM is supposed to look and sound like. They are part of a very deliberate strategy to persuade people a PM can actually look and sound like Edward Miliband.