Is Ed Miliband too ‘weird’ to be British prime minister?


Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband gestures as he speaks to supporters at a sports centre in Redbridge, southern England May 1, 2014. Miliband was launching his party's campaign for the upcoming local and European elections. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

Britain's Labour Party had high hopes for Thursday's local elections. As the results came out, however, those hopes began to fade. The real story of the election seems to be the remarkable success of the renegade anti-Europe party UKIP – a success that often came at the expense of Labour.

While some of UKIP's success is no doubt down to its leader Nigel Farage and his unorthodox style of campaigning, some Labour supporters think that their real problem closer to home: Their own leader, Ed Miliband. Is he just too "weird" to be prime minister?

On Friday, British political gossip website Guido Fawkes has rounded up some of the criticism of Miliband coming from different Labour sources. One anonymous quote is especially damning:

“The narrative around Ed Miliband, because it’s the truth, is that he looks weird, sounds weird, is weird.”

It's a cruel assessment, but you can see where it comes from. In recent days unflattering photographs of Miliband eating a bacon sandwich appeared in a British newspaper, and an awkward clip of the Labour leader trying to look "natural" went viral online:

There were other moments that appeared to signal more serious problems too: The Labour leader appeared to not recognize the name of one of his own key candidates in a recent interview ("You do know who Jim Grant is, Mr Miliband?" "You will enlighten me, I'm sure") and he was unable to say how much the weekly shopping for a family should cost in another.

The British have long enjoyed ridiculing their leaders in a manner that might strike many other nations as cruel: Prime Minister John Major was portrayed as decrepit grey figure drained of any life or energy on the satirical puppet show "Spitting Image," and TV personality Jeremy Clarkson was recently forced to apologize after calling Prime Minister Gordon Brown, blind in one eye, a "one-eyed idiot."

Even so, the scale of the attacks on Miliband's personality are remarkable. What's even more remarkable is that few of the more vitriolic attacks are on his intellect or morals. Instead, many focus on his remarkable ability to appear awkward in public space. For example, this video of Miliband repeating the same PR soundbite, over and over again, made the Labour leader a subject of ridicule back in 2011:

Other criticisms are crueler still: In 2012 the BBC's Today program host John Humphrys inferred to Miliband that he might be "too ugly" to be British Prime Minister, and in 2013 when the Daily Mail referred to his father, a Jewish immigrant to Britain who fought for the British army in World War II, as "the man who hated Britain."

Why the vitriol? Perhaps part of it comes from the manner in which Miliband came to lead Labour. Ed's older brother, David Miliband, was widely expected to succeed Gordon Brown as leader of the party, but was usurped by his younger sibling due to a split between "Blairite" and "Brownite" factions in the party. David, a handsome, statesman-like figure, has since left politics, but still he presents a stark contrast to the Labour leader.

Former foreign secretary David Miliband gives a keynote speech to delegates as his brother party leader Ed Miliband looks on during the second day of the Labour party conference at Manchester Central on September 27, 2010 in Manchester, England. David Miliband rallied the party faithful and declared that the party 'had a great leader' in his brother Ed Miliband.
Former foreign secretary David Miliband gives a keynote speech to delegates as his brother, party leader Ed Miliband, looks on during the second day of the Labour party conference at Manchester Central on September 27, 2010 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

But there's a bigger issue here: I suspect that when people say Miliband is "weird," they often mean "posh" or "out of touch." That's a problem for Labour, traditionally the working class, union-orientated party. UKIP may be led by Nigel Farage – a privately educated man who made a small fortune as a commodities trader and dresses like a traditional English gentleman – but its anti-Europe, anti-establishment message clearly resonates with people who might have voted for Labour in the past. And those people probably don't feel well-represented by a slightly awkward, metropolitan intellectual like Ed Miliband.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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