One of the best quotes about politics and democracy is attributed to US Senator Russell B Long: Democracy is like a raft. It won’t sink, but your feet are always wet.
Here in the United Kingdom our “first past the post” voting system produces some amazing anomalies. For example, people not familiar with the Splendour that is Westminster Democracy might think it superficially unreasonable that the UK Independence Party received nearly 4,000,000 votes but won only one parliamentary seat, whereas the Scottish National Party received 1,500,000 votes yet won 56 parliamentary seats.
On the other hand, our system has one extraordinary advantage over the proportional representation systems seen in many politically stagnant parts of Europe, where is it almost impossible to dislodge party leaders in any public election process. In the UK senior politicians who previously have enjoyed relatively comfortable and dry positions on the raft find themselves abruptly thrown into the river, to sink or swim like the rest of us. This latest British General Election produced a magnificent crop of now ex-rafters, including the leaders of three of the top four British political parties. Splash! Gone!
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband saw his party humiliated in this election, and he did the right thing by promptly resigning as party leader within hours of the scale of this disaster being obvious. Why did he end up in such an ignominious position?
Socialists claim to represent the common man but in practice have a soft spot for the dynastic tradition (see eg Cuba). Ed Miliband achieved political prominence primarily because of his name: his father Ralph Miliband was a Polish/Jewish migrant to the United Kingdom who rose to prominence as a front-rank Marxist intellectual beloved by a fawning London academic and media elite.
Young Ed Miliband duly glided through elegant ‘progressive’ internships and Labour Party patronage to become an MP and then Party leader, defeating his brother in the 2010 leadership election by winning the support of the old-fashioned Left trade unions blocs. He had five years to prepare to take on David Cameron’s Conservatives in this election.
Miliband’s basic and eventually ruinous problem was that he knew nothing much about the real world beyond pampered Left-progressive policy wonkery and London middle class socialism. Needless to say, while hooting against ‘tax avoidance” by the ‘rich’ Ed Miliband and his no less famous brother David carried out a deft personal tax reduction manoeuvre to get maximum financial benefit from their late father’s estate. Ed always came across as over-pressing to present gritty authenticity and show how tough and connected he was with ‘ordinary people’ and their problems.
This resulted in numerous truly awful public speaking moments that will live on for years as examples of how not to do it.
His 2011 party conference speech set the tone of what was to come. Rather than embrace and ‘own’ his genuine strengths in subtle policy work, he instead gave a sprawling speech that said next to nothing. My analysis then:
There are huge interesting things to talk about. The Eurozone and future European architecture. How to manage complexity. Where state action might best work when networked spontaneous order might not do enough. How to use the tax system to deliver incentives. How in fact to give people more choice. Why it made sense to sell council houses and reduce the state’s role – scope for more of that now? How to make ‘national’ policies work in a globalised world. European demographics and pension schemes. Defence policy – heavy manned weapons or myriad unmanned drones? State v individual. Structure v freedom. What in fact these days works well, and why?
Not a single one of these issues appears in any meaningful form. If the one thing the Labour Party ought to have aplenty, it’s intellectuals. Those clever people who swarm in higher education and Islington and Camden, some of whom are very smart and able to think. They should be able to help Ed articulate these tough subjects and more in a light-touch but mentally nourishing way. Is this what Ralph Miliband expected?
Instead we get this blast of lukewarm air, this cumulus of clichés, this infantilised gruel which in its faux soul-searching toughness pretends to be part of an adult diet but evaporates any time you stick in your spoon hunting for some substantial morsel.
His 2012 party conference speech likewise was almost completely devoid of any intellectual substance, as I explained:
The word “Europe” appears once in describing the UK as Mr Miliband sees us: “a country which engages with Europe and the rest of the world” is. A strangely drafted but revealingly Eurosceptic sentence that defines the UK as something separate from Europe”…
By now you won’t be surprised to hear that such tiresome and faraway expressions as “Al Qaeda”, “Middle East”, “Iran”, “Syria”, “possible nuclear war between North and South Korea”, “US Presidential elections”, “terrorism” and “China” are inconspicuous by their absence.
For all anyone listening to the speech would know, the UK is a planet on its own, floating along in a secluded part of the solar system and generally in fine shape, apart from all the horrid bankers and greedy business people who are spoiling our otherwise beautiful collective One Nation instincts.
His keynote 2014 speech was even worse:
Slogan after slogan, sly hints of red meat redistribution to raise a cheer among Old Labour headbangers but smothered in over-boiled vegetables of cliche and soundbite to make it seem less scary to the rest of us …
Ed Miliband is said to be smart, if nothing else. How do we explain his persistent refusal to engage in any serious way at all with the great issues of our time? What does it say about him as a person, let alone as a potential leader?
When V Putin reads this speech, will he be feeling that he needs to lift his game? When B Obama reads it, will he be sighing with relief that once again the UK is serving up world-class leaders with both charisma and sharp intellect?
To which answers come there none.
Or how about this infamous TV interview where he gets stuck like a needle on an LP record with a bad scratch? Here his problem is obvious. He is uncomfortable with his policy position, namely opposing strikes by teachers, but gets trapped in a footling soundbite loop: he wants to sound leaderlike and principled, but is unable to talk sensibly about the underlying issues.
It never improved. This recent TV interview is painful to watch. Miliband is pushed to explain why Vladimir Putin would not eat him for breakfast, and he plunges into a n exposition of faux-toughness and over-rehearsed intensity that only goes to show why Vladimir Putin would indeed eat him for breakfast.
Pro Tip to politicians: don’t answer questions about your toughness by insisting in a wild-eyed that you’re really tough! Right?!
Imagine someone asking Clint Eastwood whether he’s tough enough. He won’t say “Look, I’ve got what it takes, right! I stood up to that Lee Van Cleef and really showed him a few things about how tough I am, I can tell you! Right?”
Less is more.
All these horrors and more combined to make him unelectable as British leader. You know that you are in trouble when the sharpest TV satire presents you week after week as desperate, clumsy and gormless.
Political leaders do need to build a credible robust public persona. But by far the best way to do that is emphasise your strengths and own your weaknesses, for better or worse, not come across as always striving to be something you’re not.
Yesterday Ed Miliband came to the end of a truly appalling few hours during which his hopes soared, then were dashed. When he stepped honourably off the raft into aqueous political oblivion, his Labour colleague Harriet Harman said this:
I would like to pay tribute to Ed Miliband for his leadership of the Labour Party and to express the gratitude that party members feel for his leadership and for his decency, his commitment and his constant striving for a fairer country
Both he and Ms Harman both knew that UK politicians talk about ‘decency’ and ‘commitment’ only when they have nothing to say about competence.
Charles Crawford is a British former diplomat turned communication and negotiation specialist. His work for HM Diplomatic Service featured postings in communist Yugoslavia, South Africa, and Russia, then three ambassadorships: in Sarajevo after the conflict (1996-98); in Belgrade after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic (2001-03); and in Warsaw when Poland joined the European Union (2003-07). He served as FCO Speechwriter in the 1980s and has drafted or contributed to speeches by members of the British Royal Family, Prime Ministers and different Foreign Ministers and other senior figures.
Charles left the FCO in 2007 to start a new private career. He has given masterclasses in negotiation and public speaking and speechwriting to private sector clients as well as international organizations and foreign ministries. He is a founder member of The Ambassador Partnership LLP, an international corporate diplomacy consultancy panel. He appears frequently on the U.K. and international media to discuss international policy issues and diplomatic technique (CNN, Sky News, BBC, ITV, Voice of Russia) and is part of the Daily Telegraph (London) comment team. When pressed or bribed he can mutter in Serbian/Bosnian, Polish, French, Russian or Afrikaans. He is married with three children and lives near Oxford.
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