Anthony Weiner stripped to show off his body to women online. Ronald Reagan was the craggy cowboy. Barack Obama can wear board shorts. How pretty do our male politicians have to be? If politics remains show business for ugly people, then at least teams of stylists and makeup artists have now rushed in to offer DC and Westminster’s politicians what help they can in this high-def, 24-hour-news age.
But it has all become too much for the much-mocked British Labour leader Ed Miliband. In a startlingly candid speech, he confessed he feels his image suffers in comparison to the Conservative leader, Prime Minister David Cameron.
This wasn’t British self-deprecation by the way, but an effort by Miliband to emphasize that by voting for him you would be voting for substance, rather than image.
Sadly, it sounded a little wheedling rather than simply right (which he is). An added irony: It’s not exactly true—Miliband is underrating himself. He is attractive but photographs, as he himself joked, like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. But he is otherwise doing himself down: The pink-faced Cameron, once described as “a C3PO made of ham,” is hardly Bradley Cooper. But Miliband has an air of loping hopelessness about him. He suffers not just from failing to possess the populist touch, but also—admirably you might say—seeming not that keen to acquire it. One photo-call, in which he was required to eat a bacon sandwich, a favorite British breakfast staple, instead looked like he was chowing down on glass. (It also spawned some very funny online memes.)
In America, it would have made for a scene in Veep. The U.S. has a president that still looks good on the beach, Britain has a prime minister whose skin tone beckons burning rather than tanning. In Scott Brown, the U.S. has a former Cosmo centerfold senator, in Britain, we would ask most politicians to please keep their clothes on.
Image consultants, and hot politicians, were never part of the British political conversation until the era of the dashing Tony Blair. Much despised for his stance on Iraq and the farrago over WMDs, Blair was the first pin-up prime minister—unless you were a fervent Tory and had posters of Margaret Thatcher at her most imperious, with beehive bouffant and blue power suit, in your kitchen.
American politics with its razzmatazz and movie stars were an anathema. We have had dashing politicians—the Tory Liam Fox, for example—and we have even had a handsome one (Chris Bryant) whose selfie taken in a pair of white underpants for a gay website made it into the national press, but it has been women who have been most objectified until now by the media. The influx of female MPs under Tony Blair were lined up in a photo-call and termed “Blair’s babes.” And it has been downhill from there, right up to the “Downing Street catwalk,” as the Daily Mail called it, that followed a recent cabinet reshuffle that promoted women.
But rarely in public life do we hear the kind of whinnying that we heard from Miliband on Friday. His pitch was plaintive. “I am not from central casting,” he said. “You can find people who are more square-jawed, more chiseled, who look less like Wallace. I even believe you could probably even find people who look better eating a bacon sandwich. If you want the politician from central casting, it’s just not me, it’s the other guy.”
Miliband said Cameron was the master of “photo-op politics,” mocking him particularly for going to the Arctic to pose with huskies in 2006 to publicize his green credentials (which he would later jettison). Cameron, said Miliband, “made his name as leader of the opposition for some fantastic photos, like hanging out with huskies in the Arctic Circle. I congratulate him for it… Even my biggest supporters would say I haven’t matched him on that. I didn’t set out to do it when I became leader, and I haven’t done so. And it’s not just that I haven’t tried to do it, it’s not where my talents lie either—as you may have noticed.”
“If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me,” Miliband added plainly. “The terms of trade of politics—the way it is discussed and rated—has become about the manufactured, the polished, the presentational. Politics is played out as showbiz, a game, who is up and who is down rather than the best chance a lot of people have to change their lives. This is not new but it has got worse. Politicians have fueled it,” he said.
But while Miliband’s point may be true—that image has, if not superceded substance, at least is jostling for equal billing—it remains that in the minds of voters Miliband lacks both. He may indeed look like a horse about to eat a carrot when he opens his mouth, and photographs of him accompanying the decrying-image story mercilessly illustrate this, but his presently uncomfortable relationship with the British electorate is less about his looks than a failure of basic, simple connectivity. His looks aren’t the problem; his bearing is—his lack of charisma, how he speaks. The ugly truth isn’t that he’s ugly (he isn’t). His message and manner of delivery are the problems—his image merely exacerbates the problem.
Cameron’s government is flailing, and the polls favor a Labor victory. However, The Guardian reported that the latest YouGov polling shows that by more than four-to-one, voters regard Miliband as weak rather than strong and by three-to-one they say he is not up to the job of prime minister.
British newspapers say Miliband’s high-flying lawyer wife, Justine, will soon to be deployed in public to normalize her geeky husband.
Within his own party, there is the residual thrum that they chose the wrong brother to lead them: David Miliband is now in New York, as the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. At the time of brother vs. brother, the problem with David Miliband was deemed to be his geeky image: another irony.
Successful politicians seek to marry a triumvirate of charisma, certitude, and leadership. “My true test of leadership is not just whether you look the part, but whether you can retain your soul,” Ed Miliband said. “We expect from our friends and family an ability to listen and understand our problems, our point of view. But if we expect it in our normal life, why not in politics?” That may be true, but he also acknowledged he had a team crafting his image and message; of course he does. They probably helped him craft this speech that condemned the concentration on image.
If that seems eye-rollingly meta, a speech against image, against the focus on presentation, as deliberately staged as any public appearance, fell flat precisely because Miliband’s own presentation is so off-putting. His point is right, and he may well be a driven, decent potential leader. But if he cannot master the medium to convey his message, his message is lost—to win, he must submit himself to the makeup chair, the hint of tan, the teeth whiteners, the power-haircut designer, while—yes—gripping those cherished, principled words tightly. Sorry, Miliband, it’s time to bed down with the image-devils.