There’s a saying in American politics that was popularised by Chris Matthews in his seminal book “Hardball” – hang a lantern on your problem. The theory goes that if you have a problem, especially an image problem, then the best way to deal with it is to draw attention to it, and turn it to your advantage. Matthews uses the examples of Jimmy Carter (an outsider) and Ronald Reagan (old) as his key examples. Perhaps the most memorable example of “lantern hanging” came from Reagan in the second Presidential debate in 1984. In the first debate, Reagan had seemed confused on detail and concerns about his age led to fears over his ability to lead. Reagan’s response? That he wouldn’t make the “inexperience” of his opponent Walter Mondale an issue in the campaign. Laughter, and victory, followed.
He had hung a lantern on his problem and made his perceived weakness a strength.
Miliband’s personal weakness is, of course, his leadership ratings. Voters – even many Labour voters – remain unconvinced about his ability to lead. The Tory attack lines are already drawn – they say the Labour leader is “weird” “odd” and “awkward” – and to be fair, there are plenty of dreadful Miliband photos to back up such a line of attack. Indeed, the only question the Tories face is whether they’ll throw unpleasant attacks at Miliband personally or whether they’ll outside it to media outlets who want to see him crushed.
Miliband’s liability on this score has been endlessly debated in the party both publicly (including on this blog) and privately (amongst both Miliband’s supporters and detractors) yet it has never been tackled head on. Last year at Labour Party conference one of Miliband’s loudest applause lines was that whilst he stands up to the strong, Cameron stands up for them. It was a good line, but it hasn’t been hammered home. Today, the lantern has been firmly hung on the problem. Here’s the key section of what he said:
“Even my biggest supporters would say I haven’t matched him on that. It is not what I care most about. And it’s not where my talents lie —as you may have noticed.
“I am not from central casting. You can find people who are more square-jawed, more chiselled, look less like Wallace. You could probably even find people who look better eating a bacon sandwich. If you want the politician from central casting, it’s just not me, it’s the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me.
“But I believe that people would quite like somebody to stand up and say there is more to politics than the photo op.”
“If politics is going to respond to the distrust people have, it has to begin to respond to talking about you.
“The current Prime Minister might take a good picture but he can’t build a country that works for you. It is not what interests him. And it is not who he stands up for.
“Here’s what I think matters. The leadership you need and the leadership this country needs is one that has big ideas to change things, with the sense of principle needed to stick to those beliefs and ideas even when it is hard, and with the decency and empathy to reach out to people from all backgrounds, all walks of life.
“For me, those qualities are the gold standard for what a modern leader should offer. I will sometimes fall short of that gold standard. But it is what I aspire to.
“I know the qualities I have talked about don’t just matter to me. They matter to you. They are the bedrock of this party.”
I’m not going to beat about the bush here – there’s a risk that this tactic backfires. There’s a risk that all the public hears is Miliband repeating the accusation that he photographs badly and looks a bit weird. But I also think it’s the right thing to do. Miliband is seeking to “elevate the pitch” by arguing that the issues facing the country are far bigger than who looks better on TV, or even bigger than Cameron and Miliband themselves. The election is about how Britain sees itself, how we view the choices we face as a country – and what kind of politics we want.
Has Miliband left this too late? Maybe – this speech could have been made much earlier in his leadership. The issues he’s confronted today haven’t fundamentally changed. he has not got worse at photo ops, he was never good at them. But it seems that Miliband finally accepted that he was never going to win on the crass terms of the beauty contest – so he wants to change the debate.
But at the end of the day, if your leadership ratings are poor, you have two choices. You can either run around endlessly trying to act like you’re really the embodiment of the media approved leadership model. Or you can try to convince the British public that you’re what they need. Miliband has gone for the latter – it’s a far better strategy for him, but it’s definitely taking the long road to victory. But Miliband won’t care – he’s never been one for taking short cuts. It’s one of the reasons why I still like him, despite his flaws.
One day, it might be one of the reasons the British people like him too.