Personality bypass

Journalists and commentators think that charisma is everything in politics, and rate Ed Miliband poorly. They’re wrong, argues Vernon Bogdanor — the outcome of the next election will depend less on who our leaders appear to be, and far more on the hope th

No leader of the opposition in modern times has escaped the sharp arrows of the media. Edward Heath was, according to the press obsequies prepared for him in 1970, far too wooden ever to win a general election. Margaret Thatcher was a suburban housewife out of touch with reality. David Cameron was dismissed as a lightweight. It is only in retrospect that election-winners are seen as charismatic.

In any case, the British people have tended to show a marked distrust of charismatic leaders - in peacetime at least. Lloyd George led a coalition to a landslide election victory in 1918 just a month after the end of the First World War, only to be extruded four years later. "He will come back," George V declared, but he never did, though he lived on until 1945. Both Labour and the Conservatives were wary of him; as Clement Attlee waspishly noted in his autobiography, the Liberals in the 1920s were united only in their distrust of their leader. Winston Churchill did not manage to win a general election until the third time of trying, in 1951, and even then the Conservatives secured fewer votes than Labour, as the opinion polls showed that most voters preferred the moderate reasonableness and quiet common sense of Anthony Eden to the more pugnacious qualities of the great war leader.

Before Thatcher and Tony Blair, the greatest landslides in the 20th century were won by leaders who were far from striking personalities - Attlee in 1945, Stanley Baldwin in 1924 and 1935 and, in 1906, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, a man who had, in the words of A J P Taylor, "no distinction except honesty".

However, it is suggested that television has altered things, as it gives us the illusion that we know our political leaders. Early evidence for the influence of charisma is supposedly to be found in the Kennedy/Nixon debates of 1960. As is well known, those who heard them on the radio believed that Nixon had got the better of the argument, while those who saw them on television believed that Kennedy had won. Yet it is often forgotten that the Democrats were at that time the majority party in America, and that Kennedy ran behind the congressional Democrats, not ahead of them, winning the presidential election by a whisker. What is surprising is not that Nixon lost, but that he so nearly won.

Credibility test

In the television debates before the 2010 election, many thought that Nick Clegg was the most charismatic of the three main party leaders. Yet the Liberal Democrats, though they improved slightly on their 2005 performance in votes, failed to achieve the gains they had hoped for, or to make a breakthrough, and won five seats fewer than in 2005. They secured a smaller percentage of the vote than the Liberal/ SDP Alliance had done in 1983, when it was led by the distinctly untelevisual Roy Jenkins.

Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister not because of his party's electoral success, but because the Conservatives failed to win an overall majority. Survey evidence showed that the British public is wiser than the pundits give it credit for. The majority view was that Clegg was the nicest of the party leaders, but not someone whom the voters could see as a credible or competent prime minister.

The late Guardian journalist Hugo Young once argued: "In modern politics, nothing matters more than the leader. We have a parliamentary system but a presidential impulse." That has become the conventional wisdom. Yet, in 1970, Heath won although Harold Wilson's ratings were higher, and Thatcher won in 1979 though her ratings were lower than Jim Callaghan's.

Neil Kinnock believed that his personality was directly responsible for Labour's failure in 1992, when a further swing of 0.5 per cent away from the Conservatives would have deprived them of their overall majority and yielded a hung parliament. In 1999, he told the BBC: "One of the reasons [voters] eventually put their crosses by the Conservative candidate was this innate feeling among a relatively small number of people that they couldn't see me as prime minister. It's just there in the biochemistry, as it were. It's a pity but it's a fact of life I recognise."

Kinnock was doing himself an injustice. Labour's failure in 1992 can be explained perfectly well without bringing in the leader's personality or the infamous rally that April in Sheffield. Giles Radice's analysis of "southern discomfort" shows that the party simply failed to convince aspirational voters in the south of England that Labour was on their side. There is no need to introduce the question of personality at all.

Most journalists and commentators believe that the personality of the leader matters. Most political scientists do not. The locus classicus on this subject is Leaders' Personalities and the Outcomes of Democratic Elections, edited by Anthony King, professor of government at Essex. His conclusion, based on a consensus of the views of political scientists, is that if there is a leadership effect - and even that is uncertain - it is small and rarely decisive. Remarkably, he believes that in the 1992 election "net leader effects actually helped the Labour Party marginally and harmed the Conservatives", so that if Kinnock had been leader of the Tories and John Major leader of the Labour Party, Labour would have done worse!

Blair proved to be an effective leader not because of who he was, but because of what he did - removing Clause Four from his party's constitution and distancing Labour from suspicions that it was a tax-and-spend party, soft on crime and largely owned by the trade union movement. Thatcher was an effective leader in the 1970s because she was able to convince voters that the Conservatives had a solution to the problem posed by predatory public-sector unions. Heath won in 1970 because he had persuaded voters that the Conservatives had the answer to rising prices.

The test for Ed Miliband, therefore, is not whether he has the right personality to become prime minister, but whether he can chart a new direction for the Labour Party. Most voters spend little time thinking about politics, and want to be bothered by politicians as little as possible. They are interested less in whether a politician would be a personable dinner companion or has the qualities of a film star than in whether he or she is able to meet their concrete hopes and aspirations and is able to take a lead that they are prepared to follow.

Miliband began the process of setting a new direction for Labour at the party conference last month in Liverpool, declaring that the Blair/ Brown governments had "changed the fabric of our country, but . . . did not do enough to change the values of our economy". He argued that the philosophy which has dominated the past 30 years - that if only governments stand out of the way and allow the forces of the market to operate, all will be well - is dead. It is this philosophy that led to the banking crisis of 2008/2009, in which the search for profits trumped good sense, and the phone-hacking crisis, in which it trumped common decency. Even the bankers have rejected the old way of thinking. They supported it when things were going well but turned themselves into socialists when they ran into trouble, seeking government help to bail them out.

The old model, Miliband argued, needs to be replaced with an alternative philosophy, based less on Anglo-Saxon capitalism than on Continental and especially German practice, a model that might be called socially responsible capitalism. In this model, the role of the state is not merely to hold the ring, but to recognise and strengthen ethical standards in business through the tax and regulatory systems. Far from being dangerously left-wing, that is the very idea put forward by Heath and his industry secretary Peter Walker in the 1970s.

Basic instincts

Miliband's philosophy also has resonance in Labour history. Aneurin Bevan was accustomed to say that Labour's essential purpose was to institutionalise conscience. What he meant was that, as ethical human beings, we are bound to feel sympathy with our fellow citizens when they are in trouble - when they are sick, unemployed or otherwise vulnerable. On our own, however, we can do little to help them. We need a government and a redistri­butive taxation and benefits system in order to give expression to our feelings and our generous instincts.

A sense of direction is not enough. It needs to be articulated in a form that people can understand. Miliband has yet to explain his ideas in terms that resonate with ordinary voters, for whom phrases such as "predator capitalism" mean little. An opposition needs a categorical imperative - it must be able to say, "Do this and you will be saved" - and that categorical imperative needs to be embodied in a slogan. In 1945 it was the "Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain", in 1964 "Let's go with Labour" and in 1997 "Things can only get better".

Perhaps Miliband might try "The responsible society". We hear a great deal about the responsibilities of vulnerable people in our society - the unemployed, asylum-seekers and those who rely on benefits - but much less about the responsibilities of those who are rich, successful or lucky. Yet there are probably more irresponsible people at the top of our society than at the bottom; they cost the country more and they do more harm to the economy. The outcome of the next general election will depend not on who Ed Miliband is, but on what he does.

Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King's College London. He is writing a political history of 20th-century Britain

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying