A call to arms. Photo: Getty
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David Cameron vs Ed Miliband: what the body language tells us

Analysing the body politic.

Is it possible for the voting public to learn something about their leaders just from watching the body language they display when they speak in public? Given the number of obviously rehearsed gestures made by both David Cameron and Ed Miliband as they made their respective party conference speeches, they must both be banking on it.

Batoning gestures are natural vertical hand gestures performed in time with verbal stresses and both Cameron and Miliband gave us plenty of these. Their hands could regularly be seen shaped in carefully studied positions. Sometimes both Cameron and Miliband held their hands in a fist with the thumb over the top and other times they placed their thumb and fingers in a purse position. Both of these hand positions are taught to politicians for a very good reason. They are trained to adopt these gestures in order to avoid more weapon-like positions, such as pointing index fingers that jab and stab the air. Gone are the days of Gordon Brown nervously rearranging his paperwork during speeches; all major politicians are now trained to be televisual from head to toe.

Cameron and Miliband were well-prepared, displaying their parties' planned poses as they spoke. Cameron and the Conservatives chose a commanding style of leadership, while Miliband and Labour aimed to present a more open style of leadership.

Miliband was notably speaking without a podium with part of the audience behind him – although he did not turn to address them. This was a bold choice as it left him in a very exposed position. Instead of creating distance between himself and the people he was addressing, he was surrounded. He had to move around much more than Cameron, who stuck to traditional positioning behind a lectern, facing his audience.

Miliband’s openness also appeared in his hand positions. In many cases when his hand was open, his fingers were spread out, while Cameron’s finger positions were often more natural and less spread. For example, when batoning in a cat’s cradle position, Miliband’s fingers are spread abnormally far apart. Miliband naturally looks open because of his big open eyes and large mouth, which the media recently compared to the gormless look of Wallace from Aardman Animation’s Wallace and Gromit series.



The super splay. Photo: Getty


A podium adds power and distance to a speaker, and Cameron’s traditional pose behind a podium was more closed, especially when he was deliberately looking angry. Cameron’s deep set eyes, small mouth and thin lips have a natural predisposition toward appearing petulant, and Cameron’s speaking style leans heavily upon this anger to put across an air of determination and steadfastness.



Petulant pointer. Photo: Getty


When belittling the Labour party for the NHS Stafford Hospital scandal, he projected this stern, parental anger to warn Labour: “Don’t you dare lecture anyone about the NHS again”. This and other angry moments in his speech were typically accompanied by a dagger-like forefinger gesture that suggests an aggressive attitude.

At one point, Cameron even joked about a photo of him topless on the beach in Cornwall, and said: “People will ask have we got what it takes [to build a land of opportunity] … I’ve got the stomach for the fight.” It seems paradoxical to say that one may be clear in being indirect, but the body language that accompanied this joke and other comments was perfectly transparent. The Prime Minister showed meticulously stage-managed domination. His success in projecting this image was proved the moment he ordered the audience to give a standing ovation to Britain’s soldiers. Without hesitation, the crowd was on its feet as if Birmingham had suddenly become the final scene of an American feel-good movie.


What they didn’t want you to see

But alongside these sculpted poses, both party leaders leaked some information about themselves that they probably hoped you wouldn’t notice.


Miliband usually kept his hands close to his vertical mid-line, avoiding extremes of left and right. And on several occasions his hands came protectively together in front of his abdomen. This suggests some anxiety, although it is hard to tell if this related to his struggles as a leader or just the a result of the strange set-up in which he found himself, flanked on all sides by onlookers in a talk-show style gathering with no podium to protect him.



Confident but nervous. Photo: Getty


His hands often assumed another central position, steepling in front of his abdomen, which is a sign of technical confidence. This position is often seen in engineers and experts, and is even reminiscent of Miliband’s brother David. In some ways, though, Miliband’s tendency to position his hands centrally is a defensive mechanism. They are the hands of a geek in the playground, worried that a bully is about to kick a football at him.



Cameron’s unique lip purse. Photo: Getty


Cameron’s most revealing gesture is found in his face. His thin lips regularly purse inward at certain times in a particularly idiosyncratic way. Thinning lips are typically a sign of anger but the inward movement of Cameron’s lips, as if he was about to bite his lip, is actually a sign of anxiety. Before becoming Conservative leader, he used to blush uncontrollably in front of a crowd but has managed to control that sign of anxiety. His lip movements reveal that his anxiety still hasn’t been completely vanquished though.

These two leaders are different in so many ways and their body language tells us what kind of prime minister they are, or would be. Many of their actions and positions on stage are well-rehearsed but others are impulsive. All confirm that Miliband is open while Cameron is commanding. Their bodies give away tell-tale signs of nerves while public speaking, but neither gave off signs that they are unfit for the job of leader. Cameron is evidently an aggressive presence in Downing Street, but if Miliband were to be elected, we could expect him to exert more technocratic control.

The ConversationHarry Witchel is Discipline Leader in Physiology at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.