2012 has been a remarkable year in the fortunes of Ed Miliband.
He’s had political and professional successes, But he’s also gone from being “too ugly to be Prime Minister” to being an “unlikely sex symbol”.
OK, a puff piece about a Miliband visit shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But in January, when his leadership was at its lowest ebb, even the Labour supporting Mirror wouldn’t dream of running a headline calling Ed a “Sex symbol” – unlikely or not.
We often ask if politicians and political parties can be “attractive” to voters, but we usually mean in terms of their policies, philosophy and political offer. But the stereotypes that we all bring to public discourse make the qualities we frequently associate (rightly or not) with strong leadership those that are also promoted as sexually attractive in men.
Being viewed as sexy seems to be an important rite of passage for male leaders seeking power. David Cameron was voted among the world’s sexiest men in 2006. Back then he was the next big thing. That proximity to power can be a powerful aphrodisiac – just ask General Petraeus. But as David Cameron becomes inevitably worn down by the difficult job of leading – and seems to be doing that badly, with the latest IPSOS Mori leadership ratings having Ed ahead of him again – he would struggle to chart today.
So what has changed? Well not either man’s physical appearance. But perceptions of them both are changing as – potentially – are their respective career trajectories.
Miliband never had the honeymoon period that new leaders are generally given, and most of the media were convinced both that Labour had chosen the wrong guy and that they would rectify their mistake before the next election. There wasn’t a sense that Ed was a leader to be taken too seriously, and this was reflected constant mocking about his personal style as much as anything else. Nothing was off limits. Caricatures went from “Red Ed” to “Odd Ed”. “Ugly Ed” was probably the nadir.
But his Zen-like approach to politics saw him through the worst, and a much improved performance in 2012 has been the beginning of the making of Ed Miliband – Labour leader. The Party remain comfortably ahead in the polls, and following the Tories disastrous budget have largely closed the gap on trust with the economy – a vital electoral indicator.
Barack Obama just won an election where his polling on the economy was worse than his opponents, but where he scored higher on questions like “is for people like me”. As Cameron and the Tories seem to be doing everything possible to prove they aren’t on the side of ordinary voters, people are looking at Ed with new eyes. His strongest polling has always been for attributes such as “on the side of people like me”. As the tough economy subsides into a long and painful struggle, that dependability can seem very attractive.
In the end, no one is going to win an election based on sex appeal. But the fact that Ed can now – without any more mocking than you’d expect for any politician – be spoken of in such terms shows just how far the Labour leader has come in 2012.