Deride Miliband for anything you like, but not his looks

The shabby treatment of the Labour leader opens the door to more of this kind of unedifying garbage

Is Ed Miliband too ugly to be prime minister? Or leader of the opposition? It's a question that has been captivating entirely no-one since John Humphrys, clearly the world's most handsome and desirable man, suggested the younger Miliband was as rough as a robber's dog. And yet, it pops up again. The Sunday Times commissioned a poll to ask the Great British Public what they thought.

Astoundingly, the majority did not reply with "I don't care either way - why are you asking me this? Is this really all you've got, at a time when our economies are circling the drain? Pointless tittle-tattle about the attractiveness or otherwise of leaders of the opposition? I remember when the Sunday Times stood for something, some stray fragment of journalistic integrity, a concept that long seems to have passed you by." Or at least, if they did, their barbed retorts have not been recorded by the psephologists in great detail on this occasion.

Is this what it's come to? Can we only judge our politicians based on whether they are as startlingly delicious as John Humphrys - unarguably the world's most gorgeously enticing man - or fall short of his high standards? Well, apparently it has. Forget Ed Miliband's policies; forget his presentation; forget anything he might say, or do. Is he pretty enough to be PM?

My reaction to this is the kind of thing that makes political correspondents, were they ever to chance upon this page while chortling away about a terrifically clever pun one of their sources told them over an enormous subsidised lunch, shake their heads. Oh but this is the cut and thrust, they would say, were they ever accidentally to happen upon these words. This is all part of the knockabout fun that is the world of politics.

I'm all for making fun of people, whether it's deserved or not. Some of the world's most brilliant and successful political leaders have been disgustingly, repulsively unattractive. You'd hardly want a kiss on the lips from FDR, or Churchill's baby-like face looming over and gurning at you during a moment of passion. Must we want to have sex with people, or consider them attractive, in order to believe in what they say?

Of course, it could get even worse in the near future. Imagine what could happen if Labour's Yvette Cooper, or any other bright and intelligent female politician, managed to become leader of their party. What then? It could all become a pungent mess of whether we could consider them as PILFs - politicians we'd like to fuck - rather than people with progressive policies.

In one sense, then, the shabby treatment of Ed Miliband over this pointless piffling issue opens up the door to more of this kind of unedifying garbage in the future. You can see with the fuss made over Louise Mensch's looks that this kind of thing is just waiting to be unleashed - and it will probably be a lot worse for whichever unlucky female takes over at the top of a political party in the future than it is now for Ed.

Not that that's any consolation. Deride Ed for anything you like - his use of the word 'atmos', for example, which made me cry blood into a bucket last week - but not for how pretty he is naturally. Despite all the attempts to make it so, this isn't a bloody playground. Not yet. Even the stunningly beautiful John Humphrys cannot convince me of that.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.