Ed Miliband and Andrew Marr in September 2013. Photo: Getty.
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Image is crucial to how we decide between policies

Ed Miliband thinks image should be secondary to issues and ideas, but snap judgements matter when voters have little time.

Forgetting all his affectations ("I happen to believe that…", "What I’m saying is…"), Ed Miliband was very good on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday.

He was disarming, relaxed and confident.

When Marr brought up his poor personal ratings by presenting placards of him dressed as Wallace, Miliband batted him away:

"You’re going to show it to me? Excellent. Thank you Andrew, I didn’t realise you’d be bringing me a present. That’s incredibly kind – I’ll show it to my kids."

When Marr attacked him for dismissing the problems with his image, he smiled calmly, and offered to "keep trying". When Marr pressed – "But there is an ‘Ed Miliband problem’, isn’t there?" – he laughed. "Well I wouldn’t phrase it that way…."

In other words, he provided exactly the right image of himself. He was calm when criticised, charming in response, and thoughtful throughout.

His appearance showed the limits of what he said on Friday, in a speech that was met with relieved praise from the left and muted applause from the centre (if ridicule from the right).

His central argument – that the "presentational, superficial, [and] trivial" are wrongly "elevated above big ideas, principles, [and] decency" when we judge political leaders – is hard to contest. As one commentator put it, "I agree with Ed – indeed, who couldn’t?"

Of course what matters to someone on a zero-hours contract is whether a leader has "ideas to deal with that", as Miliband argued, pointing to his policies "on the minimum wage, on housing, on action to deal with those contracts".

And if politics was more focused on discussing big ideas people probably would be interested in it.

But Miliband’s argument supposes we have the time or enthusiasm to engage. It acts as if we have are interested in breaking down the exact length of waiting times in the NHS, or the comparative performance of free schools, or how the bedroom tax works.

Voters undoubtedly care about these issues. And the media try and make these issues relevant. But there is little indication we actually have the time to engage with and study them directly.

As YouGov’s story tracker shows, fewer than 1 in 12 voters "noticed" the government’s recent reshuffle, let alone the latest developments on welfare, education or the economy.

The point is that voters make decisions on policy by making snap decisions about leaders. Image matters because it gives us an insight into what someone is like – from the values they are likely to hold to the decisions they are likely to make.

Miliband hasn’t dismissed the importance of presentation. But he does think it is secondary to ideas and issues. His error is acting as if they are unrelated. Given voters don’t have time to engage with specifics, we must make judgements from the way leaders come across.

The speech still may have made sense. It appears to have given him a new, if somewhat resigned, confidence. By criticising the importance of image he appears to have helped his own.

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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