December 19, 2014
Ed Miliband versus the bacon sarnie
Much-ridiculed Labour leader goes ‘anti-image’ in bid for powerIn today’s modern world of 24-hour news channels, Twitter and low turnouts, it can be hard for any politician to know where the next problem is coming from. So, somewhat understandably, big-name leaders employ a small army of advisers and PR people in order to spot any problems before they begin to escalate. Image is key.
There are a few ways to retain control — try to shape the agenda, vet anyone meeting your candidate, prevent embarrassing situations etc. But sometimes, stories seem to spring from nowhere, places where you’d least expect.
In Britain, for the last two months, a tasty national staple has been responsible for giving Labour leader Ed Miliband a headache — the humble bacon sarnie.
Back in May, Ed, went to a London market as part of a whistlestop tour ahead of the European Parliament elections. It was a disaster.
Now, it had already been a rough few days on the campaign trail for Ed. He couldn’t remember the name of a local party leader from Swindon on the radio (how could he forget?). Then he stumbled on breakfast TV when someone had asked him how much a week’s shopping cost.
His handlers had to do something. They carefully planned out a market trip to show how Ed was “a man of the people.”
It began perfectly. Ed was chatting with the locals. He was walking and talking successfully without tripping and falling over. And then, he nipped into a cafe for a bacon sandwich. He chatted with the cafe owner, got his sarnie and sat down. So far, so good. Then he began to eat. This bit didn’t go so well. Poor old Ed, shall we say, failed at the first mouthful.
The cameras snapped away, horrible picture followed horrible picture.
It would be kind to say that he looked like a man who had never eaten before. The faces he pulled would put anyone off their food. It was such a disaster that after a few bites, his PR people had to intervene and the sandwich was handed off to a less important person (this really happened... waste not, want not).
The media had a field day, predictably.
“Ed Miliband Looks Weird Eating A Bacon Sandwich,” screamed The Huffington Post. “Ed Miliband fails to look normal while eating bacon sandwich,” read The Independent.
People mocked him for days. Deputy PM Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, even ate a bacon sandwich live on his radio show, to prove he could take on bacon and live to tell the tale.
And just when Miliband’s advisers thought it couldn’t get any worse, the cafe owner, the man who sold the sarnie admitted afterwards that he was likely to vote for the Conservatives, as he thought they were more “pro-business.”
Poor old Ed. All that campaigning about responsible capitalism, inequality and social fairness was struck out in one blow. All the press cared about was the sandwich.
Image has always been a bit of a problem for Mr Miliband — it even runs in his family. Ed’s brother, David, who ran against him for the Labour leadership, was also haunted by food. He was photographed in 2008, holding a banana up for photographers on his way to a party conference. He was mocked by the Tories for it — they even made lifesize cutouts of him and his yellow friend to entertain delegates at their annual conference.
In Britain, our politicians have been a little bit behind the global curve when it comes to image. It’s arguable we never really began to deal with this type of thing until Tony Blair arrived on the scene.
In 1997, Blair won by a landslide, fresh-faced against the grey Tories with catchphrases galore and image became paramount.
Since then, watching politics has become a bit like watching a reality TV talent show. You hate everyone involved, but you know someone’s going to have to win anyway.
Look at the current PM for example. David Cameron (and his team) are very image-sensitive. They aped Blair’s tactics and it worked. “Dave,” when running for the Tory leadership, took a famous trip to the Arctic Circle to talk about how important global warming was. Then he wanted to hug a hoodie. He even changed the Conservative Party logo to a nice, green eco-friendly tree which looked like a two-year-old had gone crazy with the crayons. But then, he got in power and predictably, did the square root of nothing about the environment.
Control is key
Then there’s his poshness. Cameron has tried to wash over his Bullingdon Club roots whenever he can, preferring to look normal, sharing pictures of his family home and his DVD collection.
Control is key. For example, he is known to be particularly sensitive to the work of political cartoonist Steve Bell, who always draws the PM with a condom over his head in his pictures (apparently because Cameron’s skin is so remarkably smooth and tight). The PM even went so far as to tell Bell once, when they bumped into each other at a party, that “you can only push the condom so far.” Ahem...
So this week, Ed and his team decided to counter the image problem head-on during a speech. He tried a new tactic. He went “anti-image.”
“I am not from central casting. You can find people who are more square-jawed. You could probably even find people who look better eating a bacon sandwich,” Miliband said, making light of the incident. “If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me.”
Tough talk. PR people don’t like a candidate saying “Don’t vote for me.”
Miliband even went for that classic British chat-up technique: self-deprecation. He compared his looks to a geeky plasticene TV character, Wallace from Wallace and Gromit.
Pushed further about his claims to 10 Downing Street, Miliband rounded on Cameron.
“David Cameron is a very sophisticated and successful exponent of a politics driven by image. I am not going to be able to compete with that. And I don’t intend to.” said Miliband.
It’s an interesting tactic. Miliband is painting his lack of skill as a political performer and his unpopularity as a virtue. He wants to win the battle of ideas, rather than the battle of the brands.
But is he also perhaps being a bit disingenuous? After all, like Cameron before the last election, Miliband was keen to boost his credentials by meeting Barack Obama in Washington earlier this month. His team were especially eager for the photo of the meet to get out too.
In truth, it’s not just the bacon sandwich that prompted this move. The latest polling figures in a ICM/Guardian poll put the Labour leader’s personal rating at his lowest level yet. Yet he scored well on his personal values and it’s those he’s playing on now.
In his speech, Miliband pointed out that people were cynical of politics nowadays, that voters were more aware of presentation and frankly, they were turned off by it.
That may well be true. But is the “anti-image” tactic itself also, somewhat confusingly, just another form of presentation? Ed, playing up his strong points — policy, ideas, fairness, even uncoolness — is just, as they say in PR, changing the conversation.
Maybe the general election next year will become a battle of ideas. Maybe we’ll see less of the photo-ops, short-term policies and soundbites. You’d like to think so.
But the cynical part of me thinks that if Boris Johnson went for a curry next week, at the same time Ed delivered a keynote speech on the economy, the press would be more interested in whether the blonde buffoon spilled tikka masala down his shirt.@urlgoes