How Miliband can address his image problem

The Labour leader must show, not just tell, people who he is.

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.

Miliband needs to be "mindful about image as Tony Blair was". Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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