On no account let "Ed be Ed"

If Ed Miliband tries to be himself, he will be a disaster.

Aaron Sorkin has a lot to answer for. Ever since he penned episode nineteen of the West Wing progressive politics has echoed to a familiar cry: "Let [insert name of struggling liberal politician] be [repeat name of struggling liberal politician]".

As Ed Miliband wearily takes up arms against his latest sea of troubles, so the plea rings out once more . "He should sack any adviser who tells him to be anything other than himself", the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan told the Independent. "He needs to "speak human" once again, and show he's not just another politician", said Labour List's Mark Ferguson.

There are two problems with this. The first is that Ed Miliband is just that:a politician. It's all he's ever been. As far as I'm aware, apart with flirting with the idea of playing for Leeds United, (one of the few career paths more treacherous than being leader of the Labour Party), that's just about all he's ever wanted to be.

Ed's problem isn't that the public see him as a politician. It's that at the moment they see him as a bad politician. According to the latest poll of polls he's now running behind Iain Duncan-Smith in terms of voter satisfaction. To be fair, he's also running ahead of Michael Howard, William Hague and Michael Foot at a comparable time in their leaderships. But then none of them had a cat in hell's chance of becoming Prime Minister

When people ask Ed Miliband "not to be just another politician" what exactly do they mean? Be an extraordinary politician. Another Churchill, or Roosevelt? A Gandhi? "Ed, we know you don't do huskies. But have you thought about a salt march?"

Or do they mean pretend to be something entirely different? Ed Miliband the florist. Ed Miliband the check out assistant. Ed Miliband the cabbie: "I 'ad that Progressive Majority in the back the other day. They all wanted to go to north London."

Ed Miliband is a career politician. No amount of pool playing or reminiscing about his dad's removal business is going to change that. The public may not be paying much attention to Labour at the moment, but they're not wandering around in blindfolds.

Which leads to the second problem. If Ed Milband is going to be a politician's politician, what sort of politician should that be? Sorkin would say a bold one. Or at least, Leo McGarry, his fictional chief of staff would: "Our ground game isn't working; we're gonna put the ball in the air. If we're gonna walk into walls, I want us running into them full-speed."

Somehow, I can't quite see those words emanating from Lucy Powell. Actually, I can. But I can't see Ed endorsing them: "Look Lucy, that's a little bit aggressive. I want to move away from that sort of politics. Do we have to run into the wall? Can't we just find a way of going round it. Or taking it down? Carefully. With well paid, decomodified labourers?"

The harsh truth is that if we let Bartlett be Bartlett, he'll be a disaster. In the same way that all politicians who try to be themselves court disaster.

John Major's handlers sent him off to Iraq before the 1992 general election and had him posing in the desert with a machine gun and the victorious British troops of Desert Storm. He triumphed at the subsequent election. As soon as they let him be himself he started banging on about out old maids, bicycles and warm beer, and got annihilated.

How different would British political history have been if Alastair Campbell hadn't ensured Tony Blair kept his mouth shut about religion? Or allowed him to wear that vest?

Let Ed be Ed makes for a great line, but lousy politics. I'm not sure that Labour would be in a better place if it's leader had decided to stick with his pledge to back Ken Clarke's sentencing reforms. Or that his recent highly praised speech on welfare reform would have contained the same sense of purpose had he followed his natural sensibilities and excised passages on those who "dodge their responsibilities" and "cheat".

"We'd all like to say what we think", one back bench MP told me the other day. "It'd be great. I'd love to wonder around mouthing off about every issue that took my fancy. But we've got to show responsibility. Ed's got to show responsibility."

It's easy for Ed to be Ed. The hard part is for Ed to be Labour leader. And harder still for him to be Prime Minsiter.

If being yourself was the criteria for leadership, we'd all be leading the Labour party. But thankfully, it's not.

Bartlett was a creation. A fictional character specifically constructed by a writer who knew his favoured brand of radical liberalism couldn't reach the White House any other way.

Forget Bartlett. It's time for Ed to be Hoynes.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.