When Ed Miliband stood up to decry a political and media that places image above policy, it was easy to both agree with his argument and note the inconsistency in any politician making it.
There was Miliband, in front of a carefully selected human backdrop, speaking without notes or written text, about the importance of substance over style.
Inevitably, the speech prompted thoughts of earlier speeches, earlier moments. Hugo Rifkind and Andrew Rawnsley recalled the leadership election slogan handwritten on posters by his campaign team: ‘Ed speaks Human’. Iain Martin noted the the Labour leader had just returned from a White House visit apparently constructed to make him look ‘Prime Ministerial’.
I was most reminded of the exultant reaction to Ed’s Conference speeches, when he has spoke fluently, and well, and passionately, without notes. There was little rejection of ‘image’ back then by Labour advisers or supporters. As Polly Toynbee said, it was Ed Miliband “Honest, at ease in his skin, without pretence, he turned a moving story of his immigrant parents into the reason why he is drawn to give back to British society some of what its welcome gave to all of them.” .
Image has meaning. As Polly Toynbee also said then, ‘Subtlety is Miliband’s style“. The medium can be the message.
Miliband acknowledged all this – the fact that as a politician he cannot afford not to care about his image, can’t afford not to care about how his enemies seek to define him. He knows that you cannot govern through policy papers, tracts and pledges alone. He would like, as we all would, I think, a more mature, reflective, less ‘image based’ politics.
The problem is that, as a politician, he cannot make that happen, as seen in the fact that a speech about the irrelevance of image became a speech about image.
A politician can’t make such a speech, without projecting an image – and contrasting their own self-defined persona with that of an opponent. “I am serious and thoughtful and caring” carries with it the implication: “While he is cynical and lightweight and callous.” Whether you say it out loud or not is irrelevant. Your quality is their failing.
This seems to make Miliband’s case. An obsession with style, and persona, and image consumes any debate – even one clearly seeking to reject the importance of these issues, perhaps even especially one intended to do that.
To adapt Bill Hicks, we say to any politician who makes such a point: “Ah, I see you’re going for the anti-image vote. Smart move. There’s a big vote in sincerity and depth“. Worse, any deviation or inconsistency can be painted as typical political hypocrisy.
The question we need to ask before rejecting a politics of image is why image matters so much. Is it media conspiracy, the triviality or the political class, the shortening of attention spans in the 24 hour, internet enable age?
A little bit of each I guess, but behind it all is a bigger issue. We use image of politicians as a shorthand, a signal, as a heuristic.
Nor is it merely those who don’t pay attention who use such a shorthand. Recent Research on the AV referendum by Clarke, Sanders, Stewart and Whitely suggests that the more knowledgeable voters were, the more they use leadership as a heuristic for their votes.
Think about that: Perhaps the more you know about politics, the more you rely on your perception of a leader to guide you.
Why might this be a smart approach to politics?
Gerd Gigerenzer argues that such Heuristics are a ‘fast and frugal’ way of assessing complex problems. In this light, an obsession with image begins to make more sense. If there is much we can’t know about the future, then our assessment of how a party leader ‘projects’ themselves may be a better guide to what they will do in office than what pledges or promises they offer.
For example, I have no rational basis for knowing how David Cameron or Ed Miliband would react if in 2016 Russia cut off energy supplies to Western Europe. However, their image might work as a useful shorthand. If I think one is ‘Aggressive’ and another ‘Diplomatic’, I can begin to feel a preference emerging.
This preference might become even more important if I don’t really place much weight on ‘official’ promises. If I doubt that any political party can achieve all or most of its stated agenda -again because the world is complex and unpredictable- then perhaps I will regard the image of the leader as a useful guide on what they will ‘really’ attempt to do.
In this analysis, image is not at all ‘beside the point’. Rather, it is the point, because it might be a better guide to how a government will act than any rational statement of policy aims, or another blizzard of piecrust promises.
Imagine David Cameron tomorrow told us that he would increase spending on the NHS significantly. How many of us would believe him, and how many would apply our accumulated perspective of his leadership and be doubtful?
I believe the debate over ‘image’ is in the wrong place. Voters are not being stupid, but being very smart to care about political personalities.
The challenge is not to stop caring about ‘image’ but to focus on what clues voters seek for their most significant preferences.
If voters want a leader who is intelligent, humble, compassionate and brave then how do they conclude those qualities are possessed? How do voters make that assessment – by what is said, or what is done? How do politicians demonstrate such qualities, and how not?
Looked at it this way, the problem with a politics of image is not that we think about it too much, but that we think it is not meaningful enough.
We see ‘image politics’ as a mere mask, a soundbite, a photo-opp and a pose, when instead it is a shorthand for everything you are and all that you seek to do.
Your image is not a thing you can move about by a briefing or a speech or the deployment of a partner – indeed thinking that it is shows you don’t understand what your image means to voters, and how they form their views.
This might, ironically, give politicians a way out of the trap that obsession with ‘surface image’ puts a politician in – that in the attempt to portray themselves as something, anything positive in the short term, they neglect to consistently focus on what really signals to a voter that you are the leader they seek.1
Turn that thinking around, and place your political personality consistently at the core of everything you do, and you might well reap the electoral rewards. Image is deeper than you think.
- Or perhaps, the problem is that people don’t believe your promises, in which case, you need to carefully consider the believability and attractiveness of those promises – and of course, your image might affect their believability, as with the Cameron example I gave earlier [↩]