Miliband Criticism Shows How Cosmetic We Have Become
I am not sure who to blame, the medium or the message. Perhaps it is the fault of television – constant, intrusive, hungry for anything to fill up the air time. Or it’s the message from commentators, reporters and pundits who also have inches or minutes to fill and choose to fill them with trivia instead of information.
The media are spending an inordinate amount of time these days talking about Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition, a position of power and prestige and enormous importance to the preservation of the parliamentary system and democracy as we practice it. The trouble is they seem to be obsessed with his clothes, his hairstyle and his smile. Instead of thoughtful analysis of the finer points of the present economic situation, we are hearing snide digs about his voice or his way of delivering a speech.
This is doing us all an injustice. Politics deserves a different approach from treating it as fodder for a gossip column or a TV reality show. We need to raise the tone of discourse to something above the lowest level of populism and if we must attack the politician, let’s attack ideas and not the colour of his tie.
We have an interesting example to learn from across the pond with the current Republican presidential candidates sparring for attention in their campaigns. By dumbing down their messages, by appealing to the lowest common denominator of potential voters, and by engaging the soundbite generation with their slick (and silly) slogans, they are further bringing down the standard of public discourse.
By spending more time it seems, listening to their image consultants than doing their homework on the intricacies of the economy, they have looked faintly ridiculous up on stage for their public “debates”. Almost identical in their dark suits, white shirts and solid red or blue ties, fresh shaved so they don’t look like Nixon and firmly coiffed so an errant lock does not distract from the easy, practiced and insincere smile, they proffer predictable platitudes and patriotic pledges to “take back America”.
One wonders sometimes who is worse – the politicians or the people in the audience who cheer and clap for the most meaningless slogans, for they are basically the party faithful, the voters who are proud of not getting confused by facts and who will vote the party line consistently.
Prime minister’s question time has a big following in the States and people love to hear the cut and thrust of real debate, with the English language being used with elegance, nuance and wit. Parliament is the forum for politics as performance, and the media would do well if it stopped looking at political speeches as if they too needed an award for performance. It is the content that matters and that is what Ed Miliband produces.
As Labour leader he is intelligently positioning the party by being serious and not pompous, analytical without being academic, resolute but not arrogant. What you see is what you get, not some image consultant’s production. Most of all, he has repeatedly pinpointed basic concerns of Britain’s people who are “squeezed”, worried that “the British promise” to their young is being broken, and realising that the market system must change in order to be compatible with post-crisis needs and realities. Indeed Miliband’s insights are so evocative that his foes try to filch them. He deserves better from the media as he works on something far more meaningful than a five minute spot on a talk show. He has a vision of the UK for the long term and that takes incremental change, patient, intelligent, detailed legislation that gradually brings the ship of state back onto a more democratic course. He doesn’t offer glib and polished promises for change, because he, like president Obama, has discovered it can’t be done in a hurry. Anyone who has studied the shock doctrine in economics is aware how damaging austerity budgets can be with unintended consequences affecting future generations. Incremental change, even though it annoys the talking heads on television, is sound politics and Ed Miliband knows it.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.
This article was published by Politics.co.uk on January 23, 2012. Read it here.