LONDON (Reuters) - The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party said on Friday he could win a national election next May, despite his perceived image problem, by focusing on big policy ideas rather than photo opportunities.
Opinion polls put left-leaning Labour ahead of Prime Minister David Cameron’s governing Conservatives by around four percentage points but they also show few voters see Ed Miliband as a future prime minister, with many regarding him as being too socially awkward for the top job.
Britain’s media, which is mostly right-leaning, has reveled in pointing out Miliband’s presentational shortcomings, with many commentators saying he looks and sounds like too much of a “nerd” to win the 2015 election, in contrast to Cameron, a smooth-talking former public relations executive.
In a speech to Labour members and supporters in London aimed at countering the political and media focus on his image, Oxford-educated Miliband, 44, mocked his own shortcomings but said he and his party could still beat Cameron next year.
“Because of the unity we have shown and the program we have developed, today, we’re in a position to win the next general election,” said Miliband, who became Labour leader in 2010 after the party, in power for 13 years, lost an election.
“David Cameron is a very sophisticated and successful exponent of a politics driven by image. I am not going to be able to compete with that. And I don’t intend to. I want to offer something different,” said Miliband.
Britain’s political culture has become too obsessed with celebrities and shallow trivialities at the expense of serious debate, Miliband said, adding that this was turning voters off politicians and making them more cynical.
Miliband’s recognition that he has an image problem is risky for the Labour leader as it suggests he could prove an obstacle to his party’s electoral success, but his aides believe confronting the issue in a self-deprecating way will make it harder for his critics to taunt him.
While polls show Cameron is more popular than his party, Miliband has struggled with personal approval ratings. Only 23 percent of voters polled by YouGov last week thought he was doing well as a leader, compared to 37 percent for Cameron.
Although voters rank Miliband higher than Cameron on being in touch with ordinary people, he trails far behind when it comes to economic competence and leadership, two factors viewed as crucial when it comes to winning elections.
Comparing his own looks to those of British animated film character Wallace from the ‘Wallace and Gromit’ comedy films, Miliband said that while unable to match Cameron for style as a media performer, he could offer more substance than his rival when it came to ideas for building the country.
“I am not from central casting. You can find people who are more square-jawed. More chiseled ... You could probably even find people who look better eating a bacon sandwich,” Miliband said, referring to an incident in May when he was photographed eating in an unflattering way.
“If you want the politician from central casting, it’s just not me, it’s the other guy. And if you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me ... I believe people would quite like somebody to stand up and say there is more to politics than the photo-op.”
Cameron’s Conservatives criticized Miliband for talking about himself on a day when official data showed Britain’s economy was bigger than it was before the financial crisis struck six years ago.
“If he wants to be taken seriously he should be talking about the economy ... not why he struggles to eat a bacon sandwich,” said Conservative chairman Grant Shapps.
Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones