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Miliband's new leadership pitch is a gamble worth taking

By framing himself as a man of "principle", not one for photo-ops, the Labour leader is seeking to ensure the election is fought on his terms. 

By presenting himself as a man for "principles", not photo-ops, the Labour leader is seeking to ensure the election is fought on his terms.
Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.

For months, Ed Miliband has been under ferocious personal attack from the media. Mocked for his appearance in photos and derided as "weird", he has often struggled to be heard above the gale of ridicule. For the Tories, it is Miliband's "weakness" (reflected in his poor personal ratings), above all else, that gives them hope they can achieve victory next May. 

But in his speech today, regarded by Labour strategists as one of the most important he has ever made, Miliband hit the reset button. In a partial admission of defeat, he conceded that David Cameron was better at photo opportunities than him - "I haven't matched him on that" - and that "it's not where my talents lie" (adding, in a nice touch of self-deprecation, "as you may have noticed").

"David Cameron is a very sophisticated and successful exponent of an image-based politics," he said. "He made his name as leader of the opposition for some fantastic photos, like hanging out with huskies in the Arctic Circle. 

"Even my biggest supporters would say I haven't matched him on that. It is not what I care most about. And it's not where my talents lie - as you may have noticed."

He even went as far as to declare: "If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me". Perhaps no leader of the opposition has ever been so frank. That Miliband and his team decided this speech was necessary is a tacit acknowledgment of how poor his position is on many fronts. But in an attempt to turn this apparent weakness into a strength, he urged voters to raise their sights above the level of photo opportunities and publicity stunts, presenting himself as a man with "big ideas", "a sense of principle" and "decency and empathy". With these words, Miliband is seeking to construct an alternative test of leadership to that set by his foes. One shadow cabinet minister described it to me as a "jiu-jitsu move", turning Cameron's apparent strength (his image) against him. 

Miliband's new strategy is not without risk. Some voters may find his tone patronising - "we'll judge you on our terms, not yours" - while others may dismiss it as a desperate bid for sympathy. But it is undoubtedly a gamble worth taking (if one that some in Labour believe should have been taken adopted earlier). One of the few measures on which Miliband has consistently outpolled Cameron is "understanding people's lives", his speech was an attempt to make this, rather than more trivial considerations, the ultimate test for a would-be prime minister.

After years of rising alienation with politics, Miliband's wager is that the country is ready for a more principled and serious figure than Cameron (a man of whom even Conservatives ask "what does he actually believe?"). Gordon Brown made a similar appeal in the final leaders' TV debate, declaring "If it is all about style and PR, count me out. If it’s about the big decisions, if it’s about judgement, it’s about delivering a better future for this country, I’m your man." It did him little good, but by that stage perhaps nothing could.

Ahead of next May, Miliband's decision to admit to his weaknesses in advance is a shrewd insurance policy. As the general election draws closer, the press and the Tories will subject to him ever harsher scrutiny and seize every opportunity to make him look foolish. With this speech, Miliband has declared in advance: "I'm not playing that game". 

Instead, he said: "The leadership you need and the leadership you this country need is one that has big ideas to change things, with the sense of principle needed to change things, with the sense of principle needed to stick to those beliefs and ideas even when it is hard, and with the decency and empathy to reach out to people from all backgrounds, all walks of life. For me, those qualities are the gold standard for what a modern leader should offer."

He added, to avoid any hostages to fortune, "I will sometimes fall short of that gold standard." Having set himself up as a figure of principle, Miliband will need to ensure that he does so as rarely as possible. As another Labour leader once put it, he will need to be "whiter than white" if decency is truly to triumph.

Having framed the election as a battle of ideas, he will also need to ensure that he has the best ones. The Tories' riposte to this speech will be that the problem isn't that Miliband is bad at photos ("although he is"), but that he has the wrong policies, that he'd "crash" the economy again. It is that charge that Miliband will now need to definitively rebut in the nine months that remain. 

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