Ed Miliband hasn’t found a way of being natural in front of a camera without looking weird. He works painfully hard at talking like an ordinary bloke but still sounds as though he has a mouthful of marbles. He’s young and inexperienced but at the same time inextricably linked with the Westminster establishment. He's supposed to be Labour’s biggest liability so he should be an easy target. But the right-wing attacks so far haven’t quite hit the mark.
The article in the Times this week by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, illustrates the problem. “Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister” (9 April 2015). Scrapping Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, will be the price of getting the Scottish Nationalists into a coalition, and it’s a price Miliband will be willing to pay – that’s the essence of the argument.
As a soundbite, the back-stabbing analogy sounds sharp, but as a slur it’s muddled. Miliband’s weakness is the point Fallon would like to establish. Miliband will be weak in negotiating with Nicola Sturgeon, laying us open to the chaos (Cameron’s word) of a leaderless coalition. And he’ll cut a weak figure on the world stage, leaving us undefended against dangerous enemies. But Ed’s challenge to his older brother David was anything but weak. Ruthless, perhaps. Selfishly ambitious, possibly. Decisive, undoubtedly. In fact, Fallon’s accusation reminds us of what Ed’s supporters liked about him then – that he was willing to take that personal and political risk in order to distance the party from the mistakes of New Labour. After five years, that distance is finally playing to his advantage with a wider public.
Now the Daily Mail has decided to paint him as a womanizer and multiple love rat under the headline Red Ed’s jolly tangled love life (10 April 2015). The big print mentions his “secret girlfriend” and his “wife’s fury” alongside a large picture of “pregnant wife-to-be” in 2010. But once you start reading, you see why the headline is so feeble. It turns out all the relationships mentioned in the story date from his bachelor days.
The Mail does its best to spin something out of this heap of nothing (apparently all these girlfriends were part of “the same incestuous, privileged clique”) but how bad can it be for Ed’s image that such clever, nice-looking women were willing to go out with him – before he even had a seat in parliament? The story initially focuses on a dinner party a couple of months after Miliband had returned from a teaching post at Harvard. “Ever the policy nerd,” the Mail reporter tells us, “the son of a Marxist professor waxed lyrical about economic theory.” What a clown! And yet somehow Stephanie, Alice, Liz and Juliet didn’t seem to think so.
The Mail has overlooked the basic principles of the sex scandal. First, it helps if it’s scandalous. Second, humiliation depends on some obvious asymmetry in the match – in age, attractiveness or IQ. An overweight, balding cabinet minister caught in bed with a 19-year-old glamour model is the classic format. “Decent-enough-looking bloke once had quite pretty girlfriend” isn’t anyone’s idea of news.