Yet, we inhabit a queer political juncture. Despite being - let's be fair to David Cameron - vacuous, unfeeling, incompetent and ineffectual, it's his opponent's mettle that is constantly questioned. Why? Apparently, Dave has the most elusive of qualities, of being 'prime ministerial'. Pinning this down is like tacking jelly to a notice board. As far as I can tell though, the PM's claims to this holy grail of politics is a smug self-confidence, the born-to-rule aura of someone who was, well, born to rule. That, and getting the last word at PMQs.
This, so the narrative goes, is a killer app our Ed lacks. Wholly undeservedly, Dithering Dave carries the air of competence. Ed on the other hand is, well ... he's just not like us. There is something of the wonk about him, a certain awkwardness that betrays an adulthood expended in constituency offices, think tanks, and Westminster. The "weirdness" voters attest to is an anxiety felt by many a party member and supporter. And in what will likely be a close election, questions about leadership will have a bearing on the outcome. Therefore, given the incessant belittling of the Labour leader and the traction the geeky tropes have, how do you manage Ed Miliband?
The short answer to that is not how he's being managed already. The leadership team Ed has assembled are experienced and look impressive on paper. But they don't know how to market 'Ed Miliband'. Time after time, they've tried to replace 'wonky Ed' with 'Ed the normal bloke'. A bacon sandwich later shows it to just look really desperate. Still, at least they haven't had him pictured with a pint and a fag. I don't want to say Ed's back room boffins are clueless, but they are clueless. I can understand that Labour need to fight 2015 as the, if you excuse the New Laboury phrase, 'reconnection election', but you don't do that by forcing on the leader 'I'm normal, me' gimmicks. Here then are some suggestions.
1. Turn a weakness into a strength. Everyone knows Ed's a geek. Everyone also knows geeks are clever, focused and passionate. So why not play up on this. I don't want to see Ed talking about the footy or having a campaigning takeaway. Instead, let's have snaps of Ed on the train with Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, The Economist, and Retro Gamer. More photo opps with Rubik's Cubes and pie charts. Occasionaly in-depth policy announcements. More pictures with acknowledged clever cloggs. Get the man an interview in New Scientist on climate change and green economics. Voters would like to think their leaders are very intelligent and have brains big enough to understand complex problems and propose solutions. Ed's an intellectual. Dave isn't. Use it.
2. The voters might think Ed's super geekoid, but they also rate him as most honest, and most likely to understand "normal people" problems. Already, the electorate has ceded us compassion and being 'most in touch' - helped in no small measure on the last year's focus on the cost of living crisis. Let's have Ed then constantly in works' canteens (cups of tea only!), children's centres, school gates, doctors' waiting rooms, CAB's and YMCA's. He absolutely has to be seen listening to ordinary people in ordinary locations about what matters to them as well as opportunities to sell policies that benefit the overwhelming majority of the electorate.
3. Relatedly, the "public meetings" in which the audience are hand-picked Labour friends and family have to be kept to a minimum. They might be alright for the odd set piece and good for morale - some party people love the idea of having "privileged access". But we need less Blair and Brown and more, yes, John Major. No, I haven't taken leave of my senses. In the 1992 election some, including lefties, mocked Major for travelling up and down the land to give stump speeches and answering all comers on a soap box. This allowed Major to claim the mantle of the authentic politician, of the one with the guts to face the public and not getting away with not answering questions. Ed has already done similar events ("Will you bring back socialism? That is what we're doing, sir!"), but more please. And yes, with a soap box - but make sure it's from a brand that pays all their taxes.
4. Regardless of the election's outcome, the 2010-15 opposition will go down in history as the most effective opposition ever. It hasn't stopped austerity in its tracks, and it has given the government some free passes - especially on immigration and social security. Yet, as I noted in the opening, no opposition has defined the political agenda more than this one. This speaks of Ed as a perceptive, consistent and occasionally ruthless leader. To have managed such feats and exploited his compromised opponents so successfully shows he is more than competent for the top job. So let's hear a more about this, sans Mandelsonian "I'm a fighter, not a quitter" theatrics.
These are Ed's qualities - his intellect, compassion, courage, and competence. May I humbly suggest to Ed and those around him that the best way to manage the leader is to play to his strengths.