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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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.