How can Miliband convince us that he has what it takes to run the country?

21 August 2014 -


A guest writer who is studying the Labour chief’s leadership style provides a checklist of traits that the bacon-sandwich-phobic politician must display to secure a victory at next year’s polls

John Gaffney

A new week, a new bevy of stories questioning Ed Miliband’s leadership credentials. With silly season upon us and the General Election looming, barely a day goes by without a comment article or opinion poll questioning whether Miliband has it in him to be Prime Minister.

This week, it has been fears of Alistair Darling upstaging him at next month’s party conference; criticism of Miliband’s decision to attend a football game after announcing he was too ill to attend a rally against government health reforms – and a vote that saw Miliband named the politician the British public would least like to turn up on their holidays. Stories of this type are near constant in the media. All of which begs the question: what can Miliband actually do to convince people he has what it takes to run the country? 


My research to develop a model to understand the role of leadership in modern politics – using Miliband as a case study – suggests an answer. Since 2010, I’ve looked at Shadow Cabinet outputs, conducted elite interviews and run focus groups in marginal constituencies.

What I’ve found is that leadership is best understood as a performance, or series of performances, of a constructed persona. A political leader is not simply the person we see – but a persona projected by that person and his or her entourage.

Moreover, in politics leaders are only seen as credible when they perform, or embody, the party narrative. That means the distinction between policy and personality is necessarily false. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the bacon sandwich and the future of the NHS are two moments of the same political process.

For the Labour Party, this means that Miliband needs to embody the chosen One Nation narrative. The fact that he has not yet fully done so is clear: while the narrative is subscribed to by many at the top of the party, in the focus groups I ran, no one could say with any confidence what One Nation means. Meanwhile, a large number of participants didn’t even know who Miliband was! (Discouragingly, the remainder compared him unfavourably to his brother.)

I contend that there are four leadership traits that Miliband must display to embody the One Nation narrative. Some he already showcases – and in ample measure – but others need work:

1. Courage

One Nation places itself in opposition to powerful interest groups. Here, Miliband has flourished, confronting Murdoch, energy giants, payday loans companies, and so on.

2. Insight and intelligence

People need some pedagogy – but his team could do a better job explaining what they mean to a lay audience. “Pre-distribution” was roundly criticised for being overly intellectual.

3. Unpretentiousness

Miliband was able to brush off his resemblance to plasticine figure Wallace from the Wallace & Gromit films and make a joke at his own expense on The Andrew Marr Show recently. 

4. Consistency

It’s here that Miliband falls down. You cannot scorn the Bear Pit of politics out of one corner of your mouth, and then gamely join in with the other when it comes to Prime Minister’s Question Time. You cannot deride photo opportunities and sound bites in the same week you hire David Axelrod. You cannot criticise inequality and then attend football games with the “Pharaoh of Hull”. And after all, if consistency is to be faked, it must be faked faultlessly. 

It is ownership of the One Nation narrative that will carry Miliband to victory. If he can tell the country the story of the 2015-2020 moment of Britain’s history – a story about reducing inequality, about devolution, the NHS, Europe, the banks – he will win. Then it’s just the small matter of moving from being the storyteller to the being the main protagonist.

John Gaffney is professor of politics and co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe at Aston University. He is currently running a Leverhulme Trust-funded research project looking at Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party from 2010-2015

Perhaps Miliband has a few personal roadblocks to overcome? If so, he could benefit from this forthcoming CMI seminar, set to take place in Leeds on 11 September.

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