One of the many things I enjoyed about the Resolution Foundation meeting I talked about here was meeting for the first time people who I have long enjoyed reading, including fellow bloggers Frances Coppola and Steven Toft (Flip Chart Rick), recent blogger Giles Wilkes and Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee. On the day of the meeting Polly Toynbee wrote a nice column on the attempts by the right wing press to portray Labour as elitist and/or too intellectual and therefore ‘out of touch’ with the concerns of ordinary people. That column has a sentence that is so apt I’ll save it for the end of this post.
Readers from the US will be all too familiar with this tactic, from the Gore-Bush campaign for example. A closely related ploy is to argue that politicians who are not poor who advocate policies to help the poor are somehow hypocrites (which of course tells us a great deal about the ethics of those making that accusation). Of course attempts to use background, income or character as evidence against a politician are not unique to the right. Arguments that because Cameron and much of his circle went to Eton and therefore cannot represent ordinary people are no better.
Indeed, as this article by New Statesman editor Jason Cowley illustrates all too well, the left can easily tar their own leaders with a similar brush. Here is a quote:
“Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman. Politics for him must seem at times like an extended PPE seminar: elevated talk about political economy and the good society.”
No evidence is presented that Miliband does not “really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration”. That can only make sense if it follows from him being “an old-style Hampstead socialist”. There is no real difference between this and the articles in the right wing press about which Polly Toynbee rightly complains.
Of course left and right are not symmetrical in one important sense: power. The right control the media spotlight, and it is focused on Miliband, such that every misfortune - self inflicted (HT Tim Harford) or otherwise - becomes a reflection on Miliband’s character. So the SNP’s popularity, and the likely loss of Labour seats there, is all down to Labour's Westminster elitism, and nothing to do with a resurgence of Scottish nationalism which in turn is a reaction against the current UK government. Voter defections from Labour to UKIP are put down to an alleged Hampstead/Islington intellectual tone: never mind that we have a governing party actually falling apart over an issue crucial to the future of the country. A tweet of a house festooned with English flags is further evidence of an alleged contempt for the working class, while employing someone at the centre of government who was subsequently jailed for being part of routine phone hacking is apparently not a reflection of anything. In this situation, is it any wonder Miliband has bad personal poll ratings.  It has ever been thus. Neil Kinnock, an eloquent and passionate speaker with eminent working class credentials became at the hands of the media a “Welsh windbag” who did not have the gravitas of a prime minister. The only recent Labour leader not savaged by the press was Tony Blair, but only because Blair deliberately cultivated Murdoch, and had policies that were (designed to be?) not threatening to the establishment of which the press are a part, and who was famously relaxed about inequality and the growing wealth of the 1%. But I digress.
In an FT article about a week ago, Bill Emmott - former Economist editor - raised important issues about the role of the media in portraying political leaders. It has a fantastic opening paragraph:
“Look carefully at the photos from Thursday’s by-election victory of the UK Independence party in Rochester, or those of last month’s Ukip victory in Clacton. Can you see that disembodied smile? No, this is not Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat; it is a Milanese mog. That feline grin represents a dangerous trend in British politics, one that goes beyond our arguments about immigration, the EU or globalisation, important though those are. It is the smile of Silvio Berlusconi.”
According to polls, our two most popular political leaders at the moment are Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Emmott argues that their popularity comes from the same source as with Berlusconi: they raise a smile, and no one looks too deeply at their mistakes, flip flops or even lies. What Emmott does not explore explicitly is why they are able to get away with things that would sink other politicians. With Berlusconi the answer appeared straightforward - he owned a large part of the media. But what Emmott is suggesting is that maybe ownership is not crucial: if the media are prepared to give a leader as easy ride because they are amusing and charming, we may end up with the same result.
You might think this could not happen here - the moment that either Johnson or Farage get close to power the attitude of the media would become more critical. That seems naive - how close do they need to get? The focus of some parts of the media on background and individual character seems to me part of the same trend, and it is not going to change before the election. We already have a media environment where something like a tweet of a house gets more media coverage than the impact of welfare reforms in driving many to rely on food banks to survive, or worse. It is an environment where on the day that Scotland is devolved substantial new powers, Channel 4 news chooses to lead on what an ex-cabinet minister might have said to a policeman in the heat of the moment. Those in the parts of the media that do not have to follow a political line, but who make decisions about what is newsworthy and what is not, need to reflect on what the impact of these decisions might be.
In truth what a political leader is seen drinking, the quality of their jokes, or even their actions in responding or not to the media, tell us virtually nothing about what they will do if they gain power, and in whose interest they will act. But we are not clueless. The sentence from Polly Toynbee’s article that I wanted to leave until last was this: “By their policies we know whose sides our politicians are on – whose interests they champion.”
 When those who voted Labour in 2010 were asked by YouGov whether Miliband would be up to the job of Prime Minister, 54% said yes in early October, but only 34% said so in early November. Did that one month reveal some serious flaw in his abilities as a future Prime Minister, or did his poll ratings fall because the media were incessantly talking about his poor ratings! These ratings are a convenient (because they are endogenous) device to keep the spotlight focused on him. The same YouGov poll suggests voters would be no more likely to vote Labour if Yvette Cooper or Ed Balls were leader, so the idea that Miliband is a huge impediment holding Labour back seems fanciful.