Matthew Parris

Ed Miliband’s problem isn’t his image. It’s us

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

That bacon bap earlier this month was not the cause of Ed Miliband’s unpopularity. Ed Miliband’s unpopularity was the cause of the bacon bap. Scant comfort this will give the Labour leader and his fabled ‘advisers’, but they can stop worrying about food-related photographic gaffes because once the world is out to get you, the world will get you, and if they don’t get you one way they’ll get you another. Sooner or later Mr Miliband will have to eat, and sooner or later a shutter will click as he opens his mouth.

In peacetime politics, most attack is the consequence not of an opening for attack, but of a desire to attack. Intelligent commentary does not dwell on the opportunity but asks the reasons for the desire.

I pick up my newspaper and read: ‘Nick Clegg is “toxic” on the doorstep, a Lib Dem peer told the BBC’s Sunday Politics.’ No. The Liberal Democrat party is toxic on the doorstep and Nick Clegg is the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. Do you honestly think that— oh, Ed Davey, say, or Simon Hughes or Tim Farron — would now be the flavour of the decade if for the past four years they had led their party in an alliance with its former foes and broken their election promises as a result?

Ed Davey we’d be calling ‘Ed Who?’ and describing as the ultimate flavourless bore, photographing him in the dreariest poses we could find. Simon Hughes would only have to mount a bicycle to be captioned as a hapless young curate calling in for tea. And woe betide Tim Farron should he ever draw a raffle and grin: we’d chortle that the lightweight young hopeful was auditioning to be a presenter’s sidekick on a regional daytime TV gameshow. I remember when Tony Blair as Prime Minister scuttled out of the Commons chamber in order to avoid listening to a junior minister resigning on principle. Because he was riding high at the time this was seen as displaying lofty disregard; had he been unpopular we’d have called him chicken.


Mr Clegg is only the scapegoat for the anger of supporters of a party of fuzzy protest because now their party has been obliged to focus. An ill-considered portrait of Miliband with his mouth open was nothing more than the entry point for national scorn for a Principal Opposition that can find no attractive alternative to an unpopular government’s policies. A party leader becomes its symbol. Like the tip of a magnet, that is where the iron filings will fly when things go wrong. But look to the whole magnet for its power. Replacing the tip might make less difference than you think.

Hundreds of goofy pictures of people in the news are being taken all the time, for use as or when desired. Ed’s brother David suffered mauling-by-banana — at a point when he was dithering. David Cameron was unwise enough to try to change on the beach while screening himself with a towel — but who hasn’t? Neil Kinnock was criticised for falling over on the beach at Brighton. Michael Foot was lambasted for wearing a duffel coat at the Cenotaph. All these photo-inopportunites were doubtless embarrassing, but the world only picked up on them, and the media only ran with them, because we were looking for ways to sneer at the individual. Ed Miliband may have tackled a small piece of dead pig, but Margaret Thatcher lifted an entire live calf at a farmer’s market once, as the cameras snapped. True, we smiled at the unwisdom: but people thought the Tory leader rather game and the unwisdom a matter for amusement rather than contempt.

Boris Johnson could eat a bacon bap tomorrow — and turn it to his advantage. Remember when his zip-line ride came to a stop in mid-air, leaving the Mayor of London swinging? Mr Johnson could wave a banana and be chuckled at for advertising his masculinity; and if he fell on the beach we’d suspect he did it on purpose. Nigel Farage can place a pint of beer on his head, and the captions call it an act of triumph rather than folly.

So it’s cheap of enemies and lazy of commentators to fall into a chorus of giggling censure at one infelicitous snapshot of Miliband. Speaking as one of the gigglers I’d hazard the suggestion that among the reasons for a tendency to mock is the uncomfortable knowledge that, though we keep recommending the Labour leader find a tune the electorate and its news media can whistle, we can’t actually think of one. Our country’s economic circumstances these past four years have severely constrained ambitious policy thinking; it isn’t even clear that realistic politics in which voters could believe offers space anywhere much to the left of the present coalition government.

When Miliband seemed to be proposing nothing significant we mocked him for vacuity. When he announced some rather left-wing ideas we complained they were left-wing and anyway lacked a unifying theme. The unifying theme is implicit: it would be a rousing defence of the benefits of muscular state intervention. Were Miliband to make that explicit we’d say he had ‘broken cover and come out as an old-fashioned socialist’. Were he to say he was sorry for his party’s spendthrift past we’d crow that he was eating humble pie.

So he says nothing and eats a bacon bap. Just tell me without hesitation or deviation what a Labour leader could do or say that the British media could get behind?

Mr Miliband does have a problem, but it is entirely unrelated to his choice of snack, and it’s our problem too. It is this: nobody can think of a principled position that a left-of-centre party could adopt and that the voters could believe in. So we drive a Labour leader into the corner, then call him goofy.

Sooner or later, Ed Miliband will be caught striking a fine and flattering pose in dignified circumstances which everyone can applaud. And believe me: we won’t use the picture.

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Show comments
  • Daviejohn

    So he says nothing and eats a bacon bap. Just tell me without hesitation or deviation what a Labour leader could do or say that the British media could get behind?……… I resign?

  • Kitty MLB

    How disingenuous of you, even Boris Johnson that mop headed
    Byron of politics would make a mess of a bacon sandwich, that
    was about the press being spiteful and far too personal.
    Integrity in all walks of life has clearly had a massive fall
    and as a Conservative I am in no way shape or form a supporter
    of those country wrecking socialist miscreants who spread
    destruction across this country.

    • mccartkatty@gmail.com

      am still here

  • Peter Stroud

    Miliband cannot be blamed for the bacon bap incident, but it was his stupidity, that allowed him to be photographed holding free copy of the Sun. Then having to apologise.

  • tjamesjones

    Similarly, most commentary on most events is of the form “this shows I was right all along, and here is why”

  • you_kid

    Boris, come down to China Town and have some free range laboured chicken feet on the house. Hot and crispy or cold and vinegary – you must try both.
    That will instantly attract much needed Chinese investment (London Asia Ports and the like).

  • tolpuddle1

    Why does Ed M always – even when at a factory or such – contrive to sound like a don addressing some sort of post-graduate seminar ?

    • Amanda

      Because he’s a Leftist, and they’re better than everyone else.

    • Moriarty

      He wouldn’t have made it as a don. He got a Second.

      • Gwangi

        One reason all dons should be ignored and ridiculed for the throwbacks and purely academic non-entities they are.

        Have you ever read the BS that spews forth from professors in education eh? No? Then scroll down here are read the idiocy, hypocrisy, trite dogma and complete and utter stupidity these goons cobble together for a (tax-payer funded) easy living…

        http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/

  • Amanda

    No: Mr Clegg is the leader and chief Playboy Bunny of a party that claims to have some relationship with liberty and in fact has almost none.

    • Kitty MLB

      Absolutely correct.There is nothing Liberal or democratic
      about that bunch of yoghurt knitting, bunny boiling and
      tree hugging fruit bats…they had their ‘friendly’ image but in
      reality, just socialism with a smiling face…
      And poor Nickie..his face now constantly looks full of sorrow.

  • aurila

    Ed’s not stupid he knows he can rely on postal votes

    • Roger Hudson

      Postal votes and other examples of a totally bent electoral system, they’ll be giving uneducated kids votes next.

  • dave244

    To be honest I’m not sure i understand the point of this article you seem to be saying it’s not Miliband fault that he has a problem with the voters of this country but it’s our fault because we don’t understand him.
    This is just the sort of arrogant thinking why not many people actually trust politicians all we now get is sound bite Politics and spin and it seem that most of the press and politicians think that they know what is best for us whether it’s war in Iran or unrestricted immigration or the fact that we are too stupid to make or understand any choice on Europe and now when people start to question what politicians are doing they along with the press have no ideal what to do apart from trying to “educate the voters” to their way of thinking

  • Roger Hudson

    Ed is so ignorant about the British working class, which used to have something to do with the Labour party?’ that he shows himself up every time he opens his mouth. Cruddas should kick him into touch.

    • giselle97

      I’d much sooner Cruddas was kicked. I can’t understand a bloody thing he’s trying to do.

    • Gwangi

      Really? What about the privately-educated Attlee, Gaitskell, not to mention the upper crust Shirley Williams, Tony Blair, Tony Benn (and Hilary et al), Harriet Harman etc. Lloyd George, Thatcher, Heath, Wilson and Major were lower middle class. Never went down a mine, did they eh?

      True, there used to be more real working men who came through the unions – but now, the public want smooth-talking salesmen who BS them, pander to their selfish wants with blackmail policies which lead to dictatorship by the majority, and who pretend to be ordinary despite never having never done a proper job in their whole lives (and no, PR and law BS are not proper jobs…).

      We get the politicians we deserve. No wonder the Chinese prefer dictatorship to the democracy illusion.

  • Sean L

    Can’t really see the point here: the function of the mass media isn’t so much to report whatever constitutes “news” as manufacture or invent it. And given that in the realm of politics there are no facts worth reporting anyway, it stands to reason that it’s more or less all invention or lies. What else is the function of the “adviser” but to contrive ostensibly favourable stories or images such as their man eating a bacon sandwich? If the projected image boomerangs so to speak, that goes with the territory.

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