By Isabel Woodford, a second year undergraduate at King’s College London reading War Studies and History
It is with ambivalence that many of us remember the politics of our high school canteen. The lunch time ritual could be a goldmine for behavioural studies, typically witness to a frenzy of concern for the latest designer clothing, the isolation of the slightly quirkier kids, and the celebrity-like status of the year 11 beauty queen, to whom even the occasional staff member cowered in admiration. We loved to hate it.
But in following the 2015 bid for Prime Minster, I’ve found the alienation and mocking of Ed ‘the unloved’ Miliband uncomfortably synonymous with what I witnessed during my years in education. From bacon blunders, cruel caricatures, unflattering headlines, and even jibes for joining Instagram, the media has ridiculed the Labour leader incessantly. Don’t get me wrong – parliamentary squabbles, MPs’ contagious foot-in-mouth syndrome, and the Commons’ never ending scandals – of course, that’s the fun of it. When Michael Gove got himself locked in the Westminster toilets, we found it sadistically enjoyable, and these blips help make politicians that little bit more human. But when it comes to the torrent of scrutiny on Miliband’s appearance and personal relationships, I can’t help feeling that things have been taken too far. And worse, disturbingly relatable to the petty digs and reputation-tarnishing rumours of our teenage years.
The real problem though, is it’s detracting from the matter at hand – politics. It’s unsettling when people can tell you more about Ed’s physical flaws than his policies. So for those in need of reminding, it is worth noting how the head of the opposition has demonstrated an unfaltering commitment to the Labour ethos – aside from the occasional media faux-pas. Whilst we may have to forgive his little blip in forgetting to mention the ominous D word – the deficit – at the September Labour conference, it hasn’t been all bad. No doubt, the ‘Miliband Manifesto’ can be credited at the very least for its pragmatic loyalty to membership in the EU, looking at reform rather than an exit plan, its scheme to help first time buyers, and the proposal for broader access to junior apprenticeships. It is frustrating that his policies, many of which address the concerns of much of the electorate themselves, have been drowned by the papers’ infantile – bordering on the absurd – obsession with the way the man devours his breakfast; I bet even the Queen looks a little ungracious under such circumstances.
But adulation of Miliband’s political strategy won’t do much to reassure the Labour camp. Trends have documented the public’s growing custom to decide their vote according to the party leader and his likability, personality, and appearance. We clearly have a fondness for MPs with the ‘Wow factor,’ that little bit of sass or spark, that perhaps the pragmatic, forward-thinking Miliband lacks. Even in the former-Labour stronghold of Scotland, a<span “font-size:12.0pt;=”” mso-bidi-font-size:11.0pt;line-height:107%;mso-bidi-font-family:arial”=””> 2014 YouGov poll found that only 25% of Scots ‘trusted’ him as the UK’s future Prime Minister; incredibly, on par with David Cameron’s ratings in a nation with only one Tory MP. Fears were allegedly so strong that reports recently circulated that members of Miliband’s own cabinet had discussed removing him as Labour’s frontman. But I wouldn’t be surprised if any such plots to boost their chances of entering Downing Street this week, actually involved sending him in simply for a style makeover to pacify the tabloids. Or for a session in charisma counselling, in the hope it might enhance his personal brand and appeal in the eyes of a quick-to-judge public.
As we approach the final stages of the 2015 election bid then, and with swing-voters soon to face the polling stations, it is worth remembering that Parliamentary politics need not be about who we’d rather have over at our lunch table. Even if Miliband promised to demonstrate greater eating etiquette, he may not be my first choice either. But the election shouldn’t resemble a high-school popularity contest. History alone tells us that <span “font-size:12.0pt;=”” line-height:107%”=””>judging politicians on the weight of their media-savvy skills and gravitas ahead of their policies is a mistake. And with that in mind, whilst Ed is by no means perfect, he is a definite contender. Ultimately, undecided voters will need to look past the media’s ‘Mr Bean’ depiction of the opposition leader, and see him for the intellectual that he is, with a yearning to improve the future of this country and a credible and fair strategy to do so.
So, perhaps it would have been interesting to be at Oxford with the members of the front bench. Perhaps if we dug up the yearbook mug shots, we’d see a dashing young Cameron, bold and astute in the infamously exclusive Bullingdon club, alongside the somewhat less noticeable, dorky ‘Red Ed’. But, even if the media still chooses to value these superficial depictions, one thing is clear – we shouldn’t write Miliband off as the ‘Prom King’ just yet – the dance is still up for grabs.