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25 November 2013

Don’t worry, Ed, the political nerds are having the last laugh

Across the world, unflashy candidates are triumphing against their allegedly charismatic counterparts.

By Kevin Meagher

The good natured leg-pulling about his Desert Island Discs selections reinforces Ed Miliband’s reputation as the uncoolest kid on the political block. With choices including Robbie Williams’s “Angels”, Miliband is telling us he is not fazed by being written up as ‘nerdy Ed’ – British politics’ pre-eminent Boston Red Sox fan.

This is possibly a cunning tactic. Displaying a high degree of self-awareness makes it difficult for political attacks about his appearance and tastes to have much purchase. In what is shaping up to be a dirty general election campaign, making a virtue of his anti-charisma may be a smart strategic move.

But does Miliband look like a prime minister? This is the more serious charge often levelled against him, with poll after poll highlighting the Labour leader’s credibility problem when it comes to voters imagining him stood on the steps of Downing Street. Indeed, if you Google the phrase “Ed Miliband doesn’t look like a prime minister” you get 335,000 hits. Which does, however, beg the supplementary question: just what does a prime minister look like?

It’s a fair bet Margaret Thatcher didn’t look like conventional PM material in the mid-1970s. John Major, pilloried throughout his premiership for his greyness, won more votes in 1992 than any party leader before or since (even more than Tony Blair in 1997). And although the great Winston Churchill described Clement Attlee as “a modest man with much to be modest about”, it was Attlee who kicked Churchill out on to the Downing Street kerb, leading Labour to its landslide victory in 1945.

Across the Channel, François Hollande is proof that an unflashy candidate can win a national election, even against a charismatic showman like Nicolas Sarkozy. While the continued electoral success of German Chancellor Angela Merkel tells us that the defiantly uncharismatic can not only win, but keep winning. (As “Aussie John Major” John Howard also showed during his decade as Australia’s Prime Minister.) 

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It’s a matter of having countervailing virtues to overcome a lack of Kennedy-esque stardust. Good fortune in terms of facing a wounded incumbent helps level the field for the uncharismatic leader, as does gaining a reputation for quiet diligence in the job.

A good example of this is Cathy Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. She faced snide accusations that she wasn’t up to the job of representing the EU in the hallowed portals of international diplomacy when she was appointed in 2009, yet she is silencing her critics with her central role in helping broker the pivotal Iranian nuclear deal.

So rather than the no-hoper that political received opinion would have us believe, Ed Miliband may be the latest in a long line of political nerds to have the last laugh at the ballot box. Oh, and for the record, if you Google “David Cameron doesn’t look like a Prime Minister” you get 7,670,000 results.