THERE’S an episode of the peerless US comedy The Simpsons in which Homer, driven to the edge of sanity by a series of hallucinations and dressed as a clown, attacks an actor dressed as a burglar. Homer believes he has found a real criminal and, in front of a group of children, begins a merciless assault.
The kids witnessing this brutality stand open-mouthed and terrified. The violence ends only when one pleads “stop, stop – he’s already dead” and Homer’s dragged away from his innocent victim.
We’re simple creatures. We value confidence over intellect, the simple display of strength over subtlety
The scene flickered across my mind as I watched Labour leader Ed Miliband on TV on Thursday night.
After Prime Minister David Cameron had faced an interrogation by Jeremy Paxman and a series of questions from a studio audience, it was Miliband’s turn, and the voters present seemed in no mind to pull their punches.
The first question to the Labour leader was bluntly personal: “You sound gloomy most of the time – are things really so bad?”
And things didn’t get any easier, with a subsequent questioner asking: “Do you not think your brother would have done a better job?”
None of this was about policy or what might be best for the United Kingdom. It verged on cruelty for the joy of it and by the time Miliband took his seat for Paxman’s grilling, I felt sorry for him.
This was surely going to be just another verbal kicking. Before Jezza had even begun, I thought: “Stop, stop – he’s already dead.”
Then Miliband surprised me. He properly surprised me. He was tough, clever, good-humoured… And did I mention tough?
Yes, there was that excruciating moment when Miliband, in answer to Paxman’s question about whether he might, as PM, have the steel to stand up to the likes of Vladimir Putin, said: “Hell, yes, I’m tough enough.” But the leader of the opposition was more confident and focussed than I expected, or have ever seen him before.
A confession. When Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership contest in 2010, I believed his party – and the unions that backed his candidacy – had made a terrible mistake. Having defeated his older brother David (slicker, more experienced, less weird) by the tiniest of margins, Miliband stepped up to make his acceptance speech and looked out of place, a geek entering a world of alpha males. Even the way he picked up his glass of water – holding it with his fingertips rather than clutching it like a “proper bloke” – looked odd. I turned to a colleague and muttered that nobody who held a tumbler like that was ever going to be prime minister.
And it’s been easy, since, to write off Miliband as too strange to win. Recently, voters participating in a focus group declared that the Labour leader was the sort of chap they could imagine spending Friday night playing with his train set in the loft. The perception of him as politics’ biggest nerd is widely held.
But when Paxman chose this line – people see you as a north London geek, Ed – Miliband’s response was magnificent.
Leaning in towards Paxman, he shrugged “who cares?” Newspapers, said Miliband, could write what they wanted, the bloke on the Tube could say what he liked. The Labour leader didn’t care. Miliband convinced when he dismissed criticism of his “oddness”.
I was reminded of a conversation I had with Nicola Sturgeon, a year or so after the SNP’s first Holyrood victory. For years, Sturgeon had been – unfairly, and with a dollop of sexism – characterised as a dour, humourless political automaton. This criticism had the effect of making her more guarded than she might otherwise have been.
But she was growing more confident and relaxed and I remarked upon this. The secret, she explained, was that she had reached the point where she’d stopped caring what people thought of her. She could only be true to herself and worrying about what others thought would do her no good at all.
Miliband appeared on Thursday to have attained a similar state of zen, to have reached an accommodation with his awkwardness.
Friends of Miliband’s have, for some time now, spent considerable energy in trying to fight off accusations that he’s too geeky to be PM. They’ve pointed out he challenged the energy companies over pricing, laid into Rupert Murdoch, and even skewered his own brother in the pursuit of the Labour leadership. But none of these things – undoubtedly true though they are – has made much difference.
By refusing to get himself bogged down in fighting the perception that there’s something of the wonk about him, Miliband seemed stronger than he ever has.
We’re simple creatures, humans. We might say that we make political choices on the basis of policies but, in reality, we tend to go for leaders who make us feel safest. We value confidence over intellect, the simple display of strength over subtlety.
But confidence comes in many guises. There is the simple self-assurance, instilled, in David Cameron’s case, by an expensive public school education, of course. But there’s also the confidence to be oneself, and get on with things.
Some of those close to Miliband say he always had that sort of self-belief but that it was shaken by a feeling that he had to make himself more blandly “voter-friendly”. But none of us can hide our real selves from the world.
This week, I believe, we saw the real Miliband. Geeky, yes, but unashamed of that.
Poll after poll suggests the race between Cameron and Miliband to win the general election is neck and neck. There is a very real possibility that Labour could form – perhaps through a deal with others – the next UK government.
Ed Miliband – awkward, oddball Ed – may, in little more than a month be our next prime minister. When he became Labour leader, I thought the very notion that he’d ever win power laughable. Now, comfortable in his own skin, he may just be ready for Downing Street.
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