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.

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times