From the White House to Westminster, Ed Miliband presented himself this week to the world as the man he truly is – a smart, slightly geeky politician who cares about big problems and knows how to fix them.
Politicians can be respected, feared, liked or trusted for a host of reasons. But key to almost any politician’s success in connecting with the electorate is their authenticity. To my mind the moment George W. Bush beat John Kerry was actually in their first debate when he said: “I understand everybody in this country doesn’t agree with the decisions I’ve made. And I made some tough decisions. But people know where I stand. People out there listening know what I believe.” That level of authenticity and consistency was powerful enough to re-elect a man in the middle of a losing war with a weak economy. It is that strength of clarity that the best politicians embody.
For the earlier attempt to sell Ed Miliband as “a man of the people” (the semi-fictitious “Mr Normal” effort) failed. But it is not too late to present Ed to the electorate as who he truly is – a very smart, deeply honest politician who cares deeply about tackling inequality and changing the economy fundamentally so that society itself is transformed.
As Mark Ferguson rightly noted, this meant not just presenting his strengths but also, in that wonderful maxim of veteran politico Chris Matthews, “hanging a lantern on his problem” and owning up to his own presentational weaknesses. By ceding this ground to Cameron he has given away nothing that he could have won anyway and stands to gain much in terms of authenticity and thus connection with the electorate in the months to come.
But today’s speech was about more then political positioning. There was a serious point too. Miliband hit on a resonant insight, that of politics having become “a game that fewer and fewer people are watching, or believing.” This is something previous Fabian Society research has shown: “Politics is a game played by an out of touch elite who live on another planet” was one of the main criticisms people made of politicians. The solution people tend to reach for is of more representative politicians, drawn from a broader pool than the professional political classes. But Labour’s leaders are who they are: Andy Burnham recently recognised “we’re the professional politician generation”.
So being authentic is a wise play, and one that can position Miliband as a different type of political leader, for an age when people don’t believe in political leadership. Miliband must win back trust – and his pledge to give power away to people is the right policy agenda to match his personal leadership pitch. But being authentic is a high stakes game, with a special responsibility then to walk the walk. This is a Miliband who has learned the danger of dining out on taking on Murdoch only to then sit down with his paper. He knows now, as he ever did, he’s best at his boldest.
This week we saw the Ed Miliband that rejects the gimmicks of Cameron’s hug-a-huskie and instead speaks with President Obama about Iraq, Israel and Afghanistan. This is the Ed that’s ready for Number 10.
By presenting Ed to the British people as who he actually is, as was the case with the 2012 One Nation speech, or indeed the Redbridge launch of the local and European election campaigns, Ed can win back voters’ respect and understanding by being his own man.