Substance or style? Labour leader banks on geek appeal

AP News
Posted: May 07, 2015 12:11 AM
Substance or style? Labour leader banks on geek appeal

LONDON (AP) — It was an unexpected moment on the campaign trail.

Labour leader Ed Miliband had stopped his campaign bus in the northwest England city of Chester when he was mobbed by a bachelorette party waving iPhones and chanting "Selfie! Selfie!" Miliband, often depicted as a geek, offered a few weak high-fives, posed uncomfortably with the women in pink sashes draped over their dresses and hurried back onto the bus.

Twitter lit up with Labour supporters sharing video of their man and his adoring fans.

"It worked in quite a good way for him," said Tom Mludzinski of the ComRes polling agency. "People wanted to be seen with him."

Ed Miliband is nerdy. Awkward. Shy. But those traits may not stop him from becoming Britain's next prime minister.

Miliband's Labour Party was in a virtual dead heat with Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives ahead of Thursday's vote. Since Britons choose the party and lawmaker they want, and don't directly elect the head of government, Miliband could end up running the country — despite his lack of allure.

"There's good evidence from the past to show this can and does happen," said Tim Bale, author of "Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband." Clement Atlee, who was elected in 1945 and is often listed among Britain's best post-war prime ministers, also had little personal magnetism.

"He had absolutely zero charisma and he was facing the hero of all time in Winston Churchill," Bale said. "And he wins."

If Labour wins, it would mean a shift to the left after five years of Conservative-led austerity. Miliband, whom critics call "Red Ed," has promised to slow budget cuts, increase taxes on the wealthy and protect the rights of low-paid workers.

"It is only when working people succeed that Britain succeeds," Miliband, 45, said as he introduced the Labour program. "Because I believe the wealth, the success, the future of our country does not simply come from a few at the top."

The son of Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis, Ed and his older brother, David, were both marked early for stardom in politics. But Ed surprised many observers by challenging David for the party leadership — and winning.

Ed has been dogged by the David question ever since. He's shrugged and moved on.

Appearances do count, though, when running for public office. Miliband has been savaged for his nasal twang, a goofy grin that draws comparisons to Wallace of the "Wallace & Gromit" animated series, and an ungainly attempt to eat a bacon sandwich that was immortalized on the Internet.

Miliband wants voters to focus on substance, not style. He's helped by the fact that Cameron has struggled to win over voters hurt in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

"He's not (Bill) Clinton and he's not Blair, but he's not a disaster," Bale said. "It's not like he's facing an incredibly popular, charismatic opponent."