Has the cult of celebrity engulfed political narrative?
Amid huge changes in the landscape of British politics, has stardust smothered the Opposition’s message? Or could Ed Miliband learn to harness its power?
Contemporary political culture is dominated by narratives of emotion and belonging. Feelings are everywhere in politics. What do we debate about in the pub? What do we feel during televised debates? How can a single tweet cause the resignation of a senior politician? Our engagement in politics is driven by emotion, so it is through emotion that political leaders should communicate to us – the electorate. Unfortunately, politicians seem particularly adept at forgetting this.
To look at what will emotionally resonate with the electorate, we must first define the emotions that characterise our nation. We like to think of ourselves as a nation of fairness, justice and tolerance, where ideals of community and charitable spirit still hold sway.
The Labour Party has attempted to communicate those ideals in several ways over the past four years, most notably through Ed Miliband’s One Nation narrative. From the NHS to energy price freezes, Miliband has made a series of policy announcements intended to engage voters. The problem is that Miliband’s performance has just not been convincing enough: according to the polls, he simply doesn’t look or act “prime ministerial”.
Miliband has had some moments of great performance. His 2012 Annual Conference speech, which introduced the One Nation narrative, used emotion and personalisation to show Miliband’s potential as a leader. But the shine did not last. There were several reasons for this, one being that One Nation was seen as divisive for the Party – especially for those on the New Labour wing who sometimes found themselves demonised by the new guard. As a result, Miliband’s leadership and authority was undermined rather than used as a rallying point.
Crucially, it was not even certain what One Nation was – let alone how it should be communicated. Miliband and his team failed to explain what exactly One Nation meant as a “vision”, or what it could bring to the political mainstream in terms of policies. Miliband has yet to adequately “perform” the correct narrative, and as such has possibly undermined his prospects as a future prime minister.
But all is not lost. Now is the time for Labour to act. Miliband must show voters that he could be future prime minister, and not just in the celebrity mold we have become used to. Labour can no longer rely upon the odd headline-grabbing policy announcement – they need a strong, defined set of policies that show what a Labour government would look like; indeed, what it would do in, say, its first 100 days. Miliband himself also needs to assert his authority as leader, providing an ultimatum to those around him who do not support a clear One Nation vision.
Given the enormous changes that are taking place in politics, the time could be right for a new kind of political leadership to emerge in the UK, one that is more in line with the northern European model of the “maverick” – yet down-to-earth and serious-minded – leader who breaks the mold and steps forward as the driver of a new political climate. This could be the perfect opportunity for Miliband to communicate to voters who he is, and what he stands for.
Perhaps then we could finally see the end of celebrity politics, as an altogether different type of leadership takes us forward into the next five years.
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 to 2015