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Miliband Aid? Why Our Politicians Need Media Untraining
Connor Bryan , June 26th, 2014 06:41

Growing doubt over Ed Miliband's competence highlights far more than just his fantastic lack of appeal – it underlines why the left need to stop trying to play the media's game, writes Connor Bryan

Mounting criticism of Ed Miliband's leadership comes as no surprise after a series of unfathomably awkward public appearances and some disastrously bad press. According to a recent poll by market researchers Ipsos MORI, 49% of the public feel that Miliband should be replaced.

The Labour leader's most recent clanger was his decision to pose merrily (yet chillingly) with a World Cup edition of The Sun. Deemed as a "schoolboy error" by former Labour deputy chairman Tom Watson, Miliband's pose was an impressively bad piece of publicity. His picture with the paper, long criticised for its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, triggered outrage among party members in Liverpool. The mind-bending image proved too much for one Labour councillor in Liverpool, Martin Cummins, who chose to resign in protest after the picture surfaced.

Miliband's endorsement of The Sun also directly contradicts his previous stance on phone-hacking and News International, just as damaging accusations have been proved in court about former News Of The World editor Andy Coulson. In 2011, Miliband made a great play of his intention to curtail the power of Rupert Murdoch. This recent picture portrays him not only as hypocritical, but sycophantic to Murdoch's media monopoly – further weakening his character just when confidence in him has reached an all time low. In short, he could've achieved a similar level of success if he'd simply scrawled the words "FUCK ENGLAND" onto his arse with a sharpie and mooned the camera.

This latest balls-up follows on from a string of face-palmingly-bad displays, with May in particular seeming like a particularly bad month for him. There was the unbearable appearance on Good Morning Britain where he woefully underestimated his family's weekly shopping budget at between £70-80. Then there was his BBC Radio Wiltshire interview, during which he forgot the name of Swindon's Labour leader. However, most bizarre of all was 'Bacongate' – the perplexing series of photographs that appeared of him struggling to chew a bacon and ketchup sandwich. Of course his ability to digest snacks shouldn't impede his ability to lead a political party, but it doesn't exactly fill you with confidence does it? Robert Webb once summed up his peculiar demeanour in the Newstatesman, arguing that if you imagined him trying to eat a pear, you would inevitably picture him eating it like a lunatic.

Luckily for Miliband however, David Cameron has put his foot in a PR turd large enough to temporarily distract the press from his own blunderings. The prime minister is currently facing scrutiny over his employment of former No 10 spin doctor Coulson, who was found guilty of phone hacking charges this Tuesday.

Miliband has already accused Cameron of exhibiting "wilful ignorance" over the issue, but this could be his big chance to really make Cameron look like a criminal-endorsing, privacy-perverting, character-misjudging monster. Although going by Miliband's recent media performance, he'll end up accidently berating Cameron for his inappropriate employment of ex-premiership striker Andy Cole. And then walk into a lamppost.

Although Miliband is an easy target, we mustn't forget that these types of slapstick publicity mishaps pervade the entire political spectrum. In fact, that's all we're really left with nowadays. Contemporary politics has descended into a never-before-seen level of orchestrated buffoonery. We've entered a surreal new age of personality politics, characterised not by policy, but by a constant stream of bafflingly naff MPs trying to gain a modicum of street cred. In fact, it's precisely these kinds of muppets that would use the phrase "street cred".

Embarrassing and ill-judged PR stunts are the order of the day. Remember Cameron's 'on-the-phone-to-Obama' selfie? How about when Michael Gove tried to impress school kids by rapping Wham lyrics? It really is incredible stuff. You have to actively remind yourself that the bumbling idiots on your television screen aren't a hapless cast from a political satirical comedy. When Miliband forgets how much a pint of milk costs mid-interview, you can almost hear Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It screaming, "HE'S AS USELESS AS A MARZIPAN DILDO!"

One of the only political figures that manages to play out well in the media is Boris Johnson, thanks to his discovery of the golden rule: he realised that deliberately looking like an arse plays far better with the public than unintentional haplessness. A ComRes poll taken earlier this month revealed that Johnson is the most popular politician, receiving a favourability rating of 41% compared to Miliband's 19%.

His offer to be blasted with water cannon is his latest stroke of infuriating genius – a stunt that will trivialise and normalise the use of violent weapons whilst undoubtedly boosting his popularity. Only Johnson could shut down ten London fire stations, cut 552 fire-fighter jobs, purchase oppressive weapons behind the Home Secretary's back, and still come away looking like a loveable oaf. He's the perfect example of how a cleverly worked public image can override toxic policy in today's farcical political landscape.

So why is public image given more attention than policy? Well, it seems that corporate influence has penetrated UK politics so deeply that most political discourse has become almost redundant. George Monbiot addressed this issue in his 2013 Guardian essay, 'Why Politics Fails'. "It's the great unmentionable," he wrote. "Corporate power. The media will scarcely whisper its name. It is howlingly absent from parliamentary debates. Until we name it and confront it, politics is a waste of time."

He argues that although we acknowledge the role of lobbyists seeking to influence policy, they in fact play a far more integral role, actively creating policy with no resistance "as their interests have now been woven into the fabric of all three main parties".

Also, let's not forget that the UK national press is essentially an oligopoly. A handful of billionaires like Murdoch and Viscount Rothermere own disturbingly large
 chunks of our media. According to an April 2014 report by the Media Reform Coalition, 70% of the UK national market is controlled by just three companies: News UK, Daily Mail and General Trust, and Trinity Mirror. Murdoch's News UK holds a whopping third of the entire market share.
 The neoliberal agenda is established by corporate interests and is then guarded ruthlessly by the media gate-keepers. This leaves the establishment parties either unwilling or unable to deviate from the set line.

According to a 2013 YouGov poll, 84% of the public support continued national ownership of the NHS, 68% support re-nationalisation of energy companies and 66% support re-nationalisation of the railways. However, satisfying the public's desire for such left wing ideas can't even be considered, so politicians have to resort to pint-wielding, sandwich-eating gimmicks to try and impress the people instead. 

Miliband's hopeless media performance is worth a chuckle, but it also highlights why we need to stop relying on mainstream coverage. The left's dependence on the right-wing media is a paradox we can no longer endure.

Unless you happen to be a dandelion-haired Tory London Mayor sticking religiously to the neoliberal orthodoxy, it's highly unlikely that the media will back you. Just look at the mainstream coverage of the 50,000-strong anti-austerity march that took place in London the weekend just gone – you'll struggle to find much. 

The march was organised by left-wing group, The People's Assembly Against Austerity, and included appearances from high-profile speakers such as Russell Brand, Mark Steel, and Owen Jones. Tens of thousands of protesters marched from the BBC in Portland Place to Parliament Square but unbelievably, all the BBC could muster in response to the event was a dilatory 52-word news piece released the following day. The story's absence from the BBC website is hardly a "media blackout" as some are calling it, but more of a "media letdown".

As frustrating as this sounds, it's not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that an independent movement managed to rally 50,000 people to Parliament Square using alternative media alone is highly impressive. It signifies our waning dependence on mainstream media outlets and also highlights why they can no longer be taken seriously.

The People's Assembly crucially understand that when mainstream coverage is absent, collaborating with prolific social commentators is a good way forward. Securing Brand as a poster boy for the event was an intelligent piece of publicity, allowing the event to become one of the top trending stories across social media for days.

Appreciating the sway of political bloggers will also be integral for any new successful movement on the left. Independent blog Another Angry Voice, run by Thomas G. Clark, exemplifies just how much influence can be asserted through blogs shared via social media. Commenting on the Green Party's lack of mainstream press coverage in the lead up to the European elections, he wrote: "I am just a bloke from Yorkshire and I've got more Facebook followers than the Green Party page, and more than twice as many people have been talking about my stuff as theirs."

The British left could also learn a few things from the swift rise of the Podemos ("We can") party in Spain. Founded on March 11, 2014, the progressive left wing movement received an astounding response from the Spanish electorate. By May 25th, they had become Spain's fourth largest party, managing to win five seats and 1.2 million votes in the European elections.
 Podemos was born from the ashes of the 15-M movement, the Spanish grassroots activism movement that saw thousands of protesters take to the streets in 2011 against unemployment, welfare cuts and political corruption. Founded upon these same principles of anti-austerity, their core policy involves clamping down on tax havens, establishing guaranteed minimum wages and lowering the retirement age. The party is fronted by charismatic political science professor and television presenter Pablo Iglesias.

Their recent success has genuinely shaken up Spain's political landscape. The two dominant Spanish parties, the People's Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), together scraped less than 50% of the vote this year. This is a drastic drop in support compared to the 81% of votes they received in 2009. PSOE's leader, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, even chose to resign after their poor election performance. 

Podemos' tactics reflect those of the grassroots social movements that preceded it, mainly utilising alternative media to promote their cause. The party, which now has almost 900,000 social media followers, largely funded its European elections campaign through crowdfunding projects.

So what endeared Podemos to the Spanish voters? Well, they've actually managed to succeed in an area where nearly all political parties desperately fail; they've represented themselves as a party of decent, ordinary people. They accurately read the national mood and naturally resonated with the electorate, as opposed to patronising them with cheap gimmicks and media stunts. Their no-nonsense approach to scandalous behaviour and corruption also endows them with real credibility. For example, Iglesias stated that Podemos MEPs will accept no more than €1,930 per month, as opposed to the standard salary of around €8,000. Although the party has a lot to prove over the next few months, they've given fresh impetus to a citizen's movement and have certainly given the establishment parties a scare.

If the British left can break its reliance on the mainstream media, collaborate with relevant figures and publicise itself creatively, positive change looks inevitable. If not, we'll all be left sitting on homeless spikes watching Boris Johnson unicycle and cream pie his way to becoming prime minister.