Last year, as it became clear that Mitt Romney would be their opponent, the Obama campaign had a choice in how to attack him: as a flip-flopper who kept changing positions or as a protector of the 1%, too rich to understand the plight of ordinary Americans. They settled on the latter strategy for two good reasons. First, it fired up their own base who were supportive of the call by Occupy Wall Street. Second, it would neutralise Romney’s main charge that Obama was not competent enough on the economy, by convincing them that Romney would not act in their interests anyway. While Obama has managed to execute his strategy perfectly, Romney has continually stumbled.
Political framing matters immensely. People don’t study every policy: they develop a gut feeling for politicians and parties and then interpret events and news through that gut feeling. This applies to Britain as much as the United States.
It is exactly two years since Ed Miliband was elected leader of the Labour Party. He has managed to unite different factions of the party, offer a new direction that breaks significantly with New Labour, admitted to mistakes of the past (Iraq, 42-day detention, ID cards, lax financial regulation) and established a double-digit lead over the Tories. This is no mean feat for a party that in 2010 suffered its second worst-defeat since 1918 and oversaw the biggest financial crash in 80 years.
But Miliband has been less willing to consider a key hurdle for re-election: how people perceive him. I call this Labour’s Wonk Problem: Miliband and many of his closest advisers prefer to focus on policy and speeches, instead of being mindful about image as Tony Blair was. Several polls last week underscored the fact that this has become a problem. In the Times and the Evening Standard, surveys of public opinion found that Miliband trailed Cameron on several key personal characteristics. When Miliband was elected Labour leader, the Conservatives immediately set out to frame him as "Red Ed". After that didn’t work they decided to switch to Odd Ed, and then back again when unsure. Neither label has quite worked: voters consider the Labour leader to be no more left-wing than Cameron is right-wing.
It isn’t that Miliband is shy or awkward in person – even hardened critics such as Charles Moore admit he is much more affable than his TV persona suggests. The problem is that Miliband himself hasn’t done anything to craft his image beyond a few family-oriented interviews. David Cameron has successfuly managed to project himself as a tough leader; voters might not like him but enough of them think he is willing to take unpopular decisions to sort out the economy. His Achilles Heel is that while the economy is flat that image will keep crumbling.
But Miliband cannot wait for Cameron’s facade to crumble - he has to tell voters more about himself. He has to actively frame himself. This isn’t a lost cause: the election is still two-and-a-half years away, with the televised debates representing a key opportunity to prove himself in front of the public. His ratings have improved significantly in the last few months as he has taken a strong lead on banking and media reform. But these were about policies and issues, not characteristics.
The image Miliband needs to avoid goes like this: "He is a nice guy, has my interests at heart and means well. But we are in deep trouble and we need a guy willing to take tough decisions to sort out the economy." The one he needs to project goes like this: "Yes, I’m a bit of a geek and a bit bookish. I sometimes speak like a guy who has worked in Westminster all his life. But I’m intelligent, genuine and bold. I care less about PR stunts and more about policy detail. I know my shit. But I know what needs to be done to get this country out of its mess and will take the bold decisions to do so. My opponent only has the interest of the super-rich in mind."
The charge against Cameron should be broadly the same as the one Obama is making against Romney: my opponent may act tough, but he does not have your interests at heart. Miliband also needs to open up more. His Twitter account is a good example of where he could show more personality, but he has been hemmed into taking a highly cautious "here-is-my-latest-statement" approach by his team.
Two years after being elected, it is time Miliband started letting voters know what kind of a person he is. For this, he needs more interventions and fewer policy reviews. He scored a direct hit during the 50p tax cut and that damaged the Conservatives deeply. He needs to create similar traps and take bolder steps to do so. He has to show he has the courage to take on the establishment beyond making a speech just saying that.
Miliband is heading into his third Labour conference as leader in the strongest position he has been in. His biggest job now is to challenge himself to be bolder.