Last week, Ed Miliband, who wants to be Britain’s prime minister, had the kind of public event that changed people’s, or at least the media’s, perception of him: He was punchy, sharp, raspingly dismissive of the government’s strategy. The Labour Party leader, in his speech to the party’s annual conference, spoke for over an hour without notes, moved about the stage with apparent ease, and seemed in a fine, combative humor. He got good press, which he generally hasn’t for the first year of his leadership. It didn’t have quite the earth-moving quality of Mitt Romney’s steamrollering of President Obama a day later – another, and much greater, turnaround event for the man who wants the somewhat larger job of U.S. president. But Miliband did good.
Unfortunately, he also spoke about himself.
This was unfortunate, because what he told his audience – the nation, rather than just the Labour Party conference – was the now-standard democratic politician’s confected biography. He had a loving family, and he was just like most people – in his case, because he went to state schools. Trust me, says this biography: I am psychologically secure, and I know ordinary life. As he said in his speech: “that’s who I am”.
But who is this “I”, really? The “I” who went on to Oxford University and to the London School of Economics (elite)? Then to Harvard (elite and American)? Then almost immediately to a career in politics, as a senior politician’s aide (far from ordinary life)? The “I” who had a father, Ralph, who was the UK’s most prominent Marxist sociologist? This “I” has apparently been banished from Miliband’s story – he is just the “I” that he thinks his electorate wants him to be.
How much more, or less, important is it that Ed Miliband was brought up by Marxists than that Mitt Romney was brought up by Mormons? One man’s father believed in the ultimate victory of the working class over capitalism, the other’s religion believes that the Book of Mormon was discovered by the early 19th century divine Joseph Smith on a series of gold plates and later taken back by the angel who had given them to him (before they could be fact-checked). Miliband’s past is less important, one would guess, since he is not a Marxist, while Romney remains a Mormon. Yet what does even that tell us about the Romney “I”? Indeed, which Romney are we talking about – the hard-right, Tea Party-approved Romney of the primaries or the managerial, centrist Romney of the first presidential debate?
Those American politicians who could, without too much mendacity, point to a hardscrabble youth and who used it in presenting themselves to the electorate have increasingly set the pace in the democratic world. The creation of a narrative of ordinariness, even material or psychological hardship, is one of the earliest tasks of a leader’s spin doctors. British politicians, closest to the U.S. political culture, have in recent decades constructed, where they had the material for it, their own versions of such a story. Margaret Thatcher had some success using the story of her father, the shopkeeper, and the humble flat above the hard-worked shop; Gordon Brown rather less, with his father the Presbyterian minister.