Apart from an election, it is arguable that Ed Miliband has nothing to lose on May 7th unless he happens to win that election, in which case, things may start to unravel for him. Despite sustained scepticism since becoming Labour leader, he has recently started to be not very good at unpopularity. So far.
Starting from a low base, when he succeeded the unelected previous leader of his party who became an unelected bumbling Prime Minister just before a global crash, Ed Miliband took the vacant Leader of the Opposition job. In doing so, he went from relatively unknown to deeply unpopular by ousting his brother, who was assumed to be a shoo-in for the job. Arguably, when he started the job of Labour leader, he was in minus points in the public’s esteem. In the words of Brian Cox and old New Labour, things could only get better, but they didn’t.
Bacon sandwiches, perpetually bunged up sinuses and sustained likeness comparisons to Wallace, conspired to make him look goony whilst the government cracked on with tackling the deficit and trying to make the population feel better about themselves However despite people generally feeling negative about Cameron, Clegg and Osborne and the overbearing institutions they appear to be in hock with, Brand Miliband was still a dead duck.
However, Ed was not doing nothing all the while, and with the intense scrutiny of a general election campaign starting up, Ed’s irritating earnestness is starting to look a bit like sincerity, and a few little details over the last three years are starting to fit into the frame well for him.
Miliband has done something we don’t expect from politicians – admit mistakes, and not once but at least twice. In his acceptance speech as leader he said that the Labour government had been wrong over the Iraq war. More recently in his TV grilling by Paxman, he admitted more past Labour government mistakes, and when Paxman pressed him, he reasserted the point: “Like I said, we got it wrong”. Political mea culpas are extremely rare but they fit the Miliband narrative of putting space between himself and New Labour, and in particular Tony Blair, who despite being Labour’s most successful ever Prime Minister, is toxic to many of his party. How this penchant for open regret will bear up if he ever gets the chance to make any mistakes as Prime Minister remains to be seen. For now, it is working.
Ed Miliband has taken the bacon sandwich incident to directly address the goofiness. He told an audience shortly after that he’d never win any prizes for photo opportunities, but that he was all about substance and not soundbites. He is also primed to deal with predictable bashing from the right. The frequently recurring ‘Red Ed’ tag seems to hold little sway over the tabloid readership, and neither do scare stories about unions and going back to the 70s. Attempts to smear him because his father was a renowned Marxist historian fell flat. His wife Justine, whom he married shortly after becoming Labour leader – always good PR – piped up earlier this year about her fears for the election campaign turning nasty and personal. This pre-emptive move turned out to be a smart one given the media’s fondness for scrutinizing and judging, usually harshly, female politicians and male politicians’ partners, and turns the tables on the media, putting their own values under the microscope when they transgress.
Miliband should have the advantage, given that his USP is that he is Not David Cameron, but Labour is stuttering with only the NHS as the thing that voters trusts it with. But then the economy is what the electorate supposedly trusts the Tories with, except it doesn’t even though the government claim to have engineered stability and growth. Labour today isn’t associated with society’s bad guys – the banks, the privatised utilities, the generally arrogant. However, somewhere else there appears to be a perceived force for social progression, and live on telly last week, their leader extended her hand to Ed to allow her in to help govern the UK as a whole, with the common cause of getting rid of the Tories. And whilst everyone present in the studio knew that Ed couldn’t possibly accept, a sizeable number clapped and cheered as if to suggest that it was a better-than-average idea. If that applause converts to votes, then the Dave and Nick show will most likely become brand Sturgiband come May 8th.
From a position of sustained haplessness, Miliband has stumbled towards becoming Passibly Cred Ed, following two sufficiently decent debate performances, and culminating in his “Oh please” look in response to Nigel Farage doing the rounds of the net. Then there was that encounter with a hen party where selfies with him were surprisingly sought after. And this last incident was not a certainty to work well for him. A hen party on the lash could well have been positively hostile or mocking, or worse, just not known who he was.
It is often said that governments lose elections rather than opposition parties winning them. Of course Miliband’s real challenge then is that he might become credible to a majority of voters, making him less likely to lose than he had been previously. Once the expectations start to mount, that’s when the image might start to wobble again.