Ed Miliband doesn’t do “photo-op politics”; he stands for ideas and substance against the soundbites and style of the Tory brand. That combatting style in politics is its own kind of political style is nothing new. Remember Saatchi & Saatchi’s attempt to turn the former PM’s dour persona into an ironic vote winner, “Not flash, just Gordon”?
Many commentators lament the focus on the party leader’s personality (or lack thereof) in British politics. We are not the US, they argue and proceed to imagine a golden age of voters sitting down in their studies with manifestos and a dog-eared Hansard. Brown and his successor both understand that personality matters in politics; it’s one of the few things that the electorate can judge for themselves without having to access reams of policy analysis.
If we just considered policy the British public are being offered a real choice on May 7th. From freezing energy prices to reversing some of the cuts that have defined Coalition politics the distinction between Labour and the Conservatives is starker than it was in 2010. Yet in the polls the established parties continue to trail one another. The missing element in our politicians isn’t the policy substance but the stylistic manner.
Not that they aren’t trying. We’ve had the predictable raft of weekend magazine campaignalogue interviews which reveal a leader’s “real side”. And their respective parties and supporters have embraced social media and are proudly demonstrating their multichannel wizardry. In the cyberwar for shares and retweets vines of Cameron’s “more debt” putdowns do battle with gangsta rap mash-ups of Miliband getting totes emosh.
In this environment of personality politics digital is (almost) everything. We are not quite there yet but apps like periscope may provide a vision of where politics could end up, an intimate view of the world from inside the head of a political animal, and make ever more fluid the boundaries between the electorate and the elected.
But for all this future-gazing, a ghost of politics past continues to haunt the British electorate. On Tuesday Tony Blair warned that the referendum proposed by Cameron on leaving the EU would be a recipe for economic disaster. Apart from the Express that blasted Blair’s “plot” (because expressing an opinion contrary to that of the newspaper is tantamount to conspiracy in the world of tabloid journalism), a wistful sigh was quietly expelled by the political media. To the frustration of many, there is still shining through all the Iraq toxicity that indelible panache of Labour’s most electorally successful PM. What is it about Blair that sets him apart and makes his personality so urgent? Is it the carefully dropped Ts, those piercing eyes, that subtly modulated speaking voice –it’s like he’s speak just to you? “Look”, he’ll begin, and with one word command the room. Writing in the Guardian after the Sedgefield speech Val McDermid compared Blair to a broken clock, bound to be right sometimes; and when he is right, it’s magnificent. The trouble is, our current batch of politicians keep doing the wrong thing too well.