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. 

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.