Don't worry, Ed, the political nerds are having the last laugh

Across the world, unflashy candidates are triumphing against their allegedly charismatic counterparts.

The good natured leg-pulling about his Desert Island Discs selections reinforces Ed Miliband’s reputation as the uncoolest kid on the political block. With choices including Robbie Williams's "Angels", Miliband is telling us he is not fazed by being written up as 'nerdy Ed' - British politics’ pre-eminent Boston Red Sox fan.

This is possibly a cunning tactic. Displaying a high degree of self-awareness makes it difficult for political attacks about his appearance and tastes to have much purchase. In what is shaping up to be a dirty general election campaign, making a virtue of his anti-charisma may be a smart strategic move.

But does Miliband look like a prime minister? This is the more serious charge often levelled against him, with poll after poll highlighting the Labour leader’s credibility problem when it comes to voters imagining him stood on the steps of Downing Street. Indeed, if you Google the phrase "Ed Miliband doesn't look like a prime minister" you get 335,000 hits. Which does, however, beg the supplementary question: just what does a prime minister look like?

It’s a fair bet Margaret Thatcher didn’t look like conventional PM material in the mid-1970s. John Major, pilloried throughout his premiership for his greyness, won more votes in 1992 than any party leader before or since (even more than Tony Blair in 1997). And although the great Winston Churchill described Clement Attlee as "a modest man with much to be modest about", it was Attlee who kicked Churchill out on to the Downing Street kerb, leading Labour to its landslide victory in 1945.

Across the Channel, François Hollande is proof that an unflashy candidate can win a national election, even against a charismatic showman like Nicolas Sarkozy. While the continued electoral success of German Chancellor Angela Merkel tells us that the defiantly uncharismatic can not only win, but keep winning. (As "Aussie John Major" John Howard also showed during his decade as Australia’s Prime Minister.) 

It’s a matter of having countervailing virtues to overcome a lack of Kennedy-esque stardust. Good fortune in terms of facing a wounded incumbent helps level the field for the uncharismatic leader, as does gaining a reputation for quiet diligence in the job.

A good example of this is Cathy Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. She faced snide accusations that she wasn’t up to the job of representing the EU in the hallowed portals of international diplomacy when she was appointed in 2009, yet she is silencing her critics with her central role in helping broker the pivotal Iranian nuclear deal.

So rather than the no-hoper that political received opinion would have us believe, Ed Miliband may be the latest in a long line of political nerds to have the last laugh at the ballot box. Oh, and for the record, if you Google "David Cameron doesn’t look like a Prime Minister" you get 7,670,000 results.

Ed Miliband visits Standard Life on November, 11, 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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