Perhaps the most prevalent question in British politics right now is that of how Ed Miliband is to convince the electorate that he is a serious candidate for Prime Minister, and probably the most oft-repeated advice offered him is that the result of next year’s election will depend on whether he is able to ‘connect’ with voters.
I’ve never been too sure what being ‘connected’ really means. Dennis Skinner, in so many ways an admirable figure and a man generally agreed to be more representative of working people than the average MP, said in a recent interview that he avoids using e-mail in part because he “wants to keep the postman and woman in work”. Are those the words of a man ‘in touch’ with the realities of the world in which the working Briton now lives?
But a more pressing paradox for the Labour leader is that any politician setting out too consciously to ‘connect’ is certain to come across inauthentic and patronising, just as any pub branded with the promise of a ‘Great Atmosphere’ is certain to be shiny and lifeless.
This uniquely mindless and now-famous interview given by Mr Miliband a couple of years ago demonstrates the point. Its every aspect—from his repetitive voice-of-reason spiel, to the family photos positioned over his shoulder, to his sympathetic eyes-closed head nods—speaks of a man preparing far too thoroughly to appear grounded. Do even his most willing critics imagine that he is incapable of producing ad lib a performance far superior to that? Could he conceivably have so successfully insulted his audience without having suffered the attention of a few too many PRs?
But if such attention helps him to avoid forgetting to mention the deficit, or fumbling encounters with soggy-socked MPs, or not knowing his own grocery bill, then who could blame him? The insouciance of the most savvy politician, or for that matter the most well-meaning one, would be tested by the 24-hour news cycle and the Twittersphere, fluid worlds in which no public slip is too small to send a minister’s head rolling out into the Whitehall traffic.
Better balance might be found elsewhere. BBC Parliament recently re-ran the Corporation’s 1964 general election coverage, providing an opportunity for reflection on how political communication has changed. Throughout, Richard Dimbleby announced the return of parliamentary panjandrums-to-be to their seats while his junior reporter son walked the streets with a microphone, and a black and white newsroom kept score using whiteboards and placards where now we have glass screens and infographics.
Among the victors was Tony Benn, then returning to the Commons for the first time since successfully renouncing his peerage. Benn’s death this year gave rise to a good deal of predictable guff from all sides about how ‘They don’t make ‘em like that anymore’. I get bored hearing this stuff from people who can’t have been breathing, let along living, long enough to have ever truly opposed today’s elder statesman, or to have absorbed the day-to-day of a period whose politics they now insist was more honourable than our own.
But there was something different about the many MPs interviewed over the course of that coverage. As with the coverage itself, the difference was less in substance than in style. They were more relaxed, less inclined to bristle and repeat the party line if they weren’t sure how to answer a question, less mindful of which party higher-up might be scrutinising their every word. It made them more statesmanlike and—perhaps not conversely—more human.
Thus the current ‘disillusionment with Westminster politics’—much more, I think, symptomatic of the new media through which discontent can travel than of any intensifying of the essential contempt in which we hold our politicians. We now have fast and accurate means with which to scrutinise a politician’s every public statement for signs of their having flaws or a pulse or doubts or opinions that might differ from their party’s sanitised line.
Then the standards to which we hold our politicians are much less retrograde than they are victims of their own success. But in a recent interview, members of Mitt Romney’s campaign team claimed that by the time of the build up to the 2012 election, tweets from his account had to be approved by 22 people before being posted. Do we want to terrify our politicians into similarly stifled states?
For the Labour leader’s part, he has a real opportunity. He is a young, intelligent, and enthusiastic leader at the head of a party that has an enormous comparative advantage when it comes to convincing and—in theory—demonstrating to ordinary people that it will work in their interests. He has used the cost of living, zero-hour contracts, and public sector cuts to finally produce a counter to the Chancellor’s economic narrative of Labour incompetence. He is to fight an election campaign in a year which, for all that has remained static since 1964, will be discernible from any of the previous 50 by the potential that now exists for real and organic lines of communication to open between the electorate and its representatives.
The whole country is waiting for him to seize on those conditions. But if he really wants to generate a ‘new way of doing politics’ and ‘connect’ with voters, he might have to stop trying so damn hard, and we might have to learn to appreciate the imperfect results.