Of course Ed Miliband isn’t really like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. If he was he’d have been eating a Wensleydale sandwich instead of a bacon one, and none of this fuss would ever have happened.
OK, maybe not. The leader of the opposition, especially one who is seen as a threat by newspaper proprietors and other powerful interests, is bound to be scrutinised relentlessly and sometimes not very fairly. It happens – and the Labour leader knows it.
Which is why he was right to confront the question of his image in that speech on Friday . It was going to be discussed in any case from now until the election. Trying to put his side of the story – trying, in effect, to reframe the whole question of image and leadership – was a wise thing to do.
The speech has achieved several things. For one, it will now be just a bit harder – but only a bit – for the lobby and broadcasters to run endless pieces about Miliband’s appearance and demeanour. They still will, of course. Indeed, some will take Friday’s speech as an act of defiance and a provocation, which must be met by an even greater focus on the leader’s teeth, hair, eyes and so on. But Miliband now has an easy answer to any questions on this subject: it is to sigh gently, smile sweetly, and say that he has dealt with that, and that voters in the run-up to an election would probably rather think about more important matters. And when he says that he will be right.
In fact, more thoughtful and sensible Conservatives think so too. As Toby Helm reported in yesterday’s Observer, several leading Tories (and especially Tory women) are worried about the impact of an excessively personal and mean-spirited campaign targeted on Miliband. If you are trying to convince people you are no longer the “nasty party” then being nasty would not seem to be a very good idea. Cameron was partially successful in his attempted “detoxification” of the Tory “brand” in the run-up to 2010, and won back some support. Renewed toxicity will cost him crucial votes.
Friday’s speech also reframed the question of leadership. Miliband said he believed leadership was about “big ideas, principles, decency and empathy”. The contrast with David Cameron was deliberate, stark – and telling. Cameron, after all, has declared proudly that “there is nothing very complicated about me”. He is suspicious of big ideas and would rather not think too deeply about any of them. The principles he espoused in opposition – of being committed to green policies, of believing in compassionate conservatism – did not survive contact with his red boxes. The man who took Andy Coulson with him into No 10 on a nod and a wink, and who will turn up on a tennis court for the highest oligarch bidder, can hardly be said to be concerned about decency in public office. And the driving force behind the bedroom tax and severe work capability assessments is clearly rather lacking in the empathy department.
Ed Miliband’s opponents attack him on his appearance because they are worried his ideas will win support. They will try to deny him a hearing, and focus instead on trivia and superficial issues. The Conservatives will accuse Miliband of being weak even while they are too scared to agree to televised debates.
Ideas, principles, decency and empathy – it would make a pleasant change, wouldn’t it? I favour seriousness over smarm, and I choose decency over sleaze. By polling day quite a lot of people may do so too.
Stefan Stern is Contributing Editor of LabourList