Aaron Sorkin has a lot to answer for. Ever since he penned episode nineteen of the West Wing progressive politics has echoed to a familiar cry: “Let [insert name of struggling liberal politician] be [repeat name of struggling liberal politician]”.
As Ed Miliband wearily takes up arms against his latest sea of troubles, so the plea rings out once more . “He should sack any adviser who tells him to be anything other than himself”, the New Statesman‘s Mehdi Hasan told the Independent. “He needs to “speak human” once again, and show he’s not just another politician”, said Labour List’s Mark Ferguson.
There are two problems with this. The first is that Ed Miliband is just that:a politician. It’s all he’s ever been. As far as I’m aware, apart with flirting with the idea of playing for Leeds United, (one of the few career paths more treacherous than being leader of the Labour Party), that’s just about all he’s ever wanted to be.
Ed’s problem isn’t that the public see him as a politician. It’s that at the moment they see him as a bad politician. According to the latest poll of polls he’s now running behind Iain Duncan-Smith in terms of voter satisfaction. To be fair, he’s also running ahead of Michael Howard, William Hague and Michael Foot at a comparable time in their leaderships. But then none of them had a cat in hell’s chance of becoming Prime Minister
When people ask Ed Miliband “not to be just another politician” what exactly do they mean? Be an extraordinary politician. Another Churchill, or Roosevelt? A Gandhi? “Ed, we know you don’t do huskies. But have you thought about a salt march?”
Or do they mean pretend to be something entirely different? Ed Miliband the florist. Ed Miliband the check out assistant. Ed Miliband the cabbie: “I ‘ad that Progressive Majority in the back the other day. They all wanted to go to north London.”
Ed Miliband is a career politician. No amount of pool playing or reminiscing about his dad’s removal business is going to change that. The public may not be paying much attention to Labour at the moment, but they’re not wandering around in blindfolds.
Which leads to the second problem. If Ed Milband is going to be a politician’s politician, what sort of politician should that be? Sorkin would say a bold one. Or at least, Leo McGarry, his fictional chief of staff would: “Our ground game isn’t working; we’re gonna put the ball in the air. If we’re gonna walk into walls, I want us running into them full-speed.”
Somehow, I can’t quite see those words emanating from Lucy Powell. Actually, I can. But I can’t see Ed endorsing them: “Look Lucy, that’s a little bit aggressive. I want to move away from that sort of politics. Do we have to run into the wall? Can’t we just find a way of going round it. Or taking it down? Carefully. With well paid, decomodified labourers?”
The harsh truth is that if we let Bartlett be Bartlett, he’ll be a disaster. In the same way that all politicians who try to be themselves court disaster.
John Major’s handlers sent him off to Iraq before the 1992 general election and had him posing in the desert with a machine gun and the victorious British troops of Desert Storm. He triumphed at the subsequent election. As soon as they let him be himself he started banging on about out old maids, bicycles and warm beer, and got annihilated.
How different would British political history have been if Alastair Campbell hadn’t ensured Tony Blair kept his mouth shut about religion? Or allowed him to wear that vest?
Let Ed be Ed makes for a great line, but lousy politics. I’m not sure that Labour would be in a better place if it’s leader had decided to stick with his pledge to back Ken Clarke’s sentencing reforms. Or that his recent highly praised speech on welfare reform would have contained the same sense of purpose had he followed his natural sensibilities and excised passages on those who “dodge their responsibilities” and “cheat”.
“We’d all like to say what we think”, one back bench MP told me the other day. “It’d be great. I’d love to wonder around mouthing off about every issue that took my fancy. But we’ve got to show responsibility. Ed’s got to show responsibility.”
It’s easy for Ed to be Ed. The hard part is for Ed to be Labour leader. And harder still for him to be Prime Minsiter.
If being yourself was the criteria for leadership, we’d all be leading the Labour party. But thankfully, it’s not.
Bartlett was a creation. A fictional character specifically constructed by a writer who knew his favoured brand of radical liberalism couldn’t reach the White House any other way.
Forget Bartlett. It’s time for Ed to be Hoynes.