'Photo-ops or decency?' Wallace-lookalike Ed Miliband hits back at political 'game of showbiz'

In a bold yet risky speech, Labour leader admits he is 'not from central casting' and can't compete with Cameron on image

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Indy Politics

Ed Miliband  made a candid admission of his own weaknesses today as he conceded that he would never win a “photo-opportunity contest” with David Cameron.

In a bold but high risk speech in London, Mr Miliband told people they should vote for Mr Cameron if they thought that style mattered more than substance. He tackled his image problem head-on in an attempt to change “the terms of trade of politics” ahead of next May’s general election.

The Labour leader declared that politics had become “a game of showbiz” --played by “C-list celebrities”-- that fewer and fewer people were watching. He argued that the “photo-op culture” demeaned politics and warned that, unless politicians changed their ways, “more and more people will simply turn away.”

Mr Miliband, who will soon appoint an £80,000-a-year broadcasting officer to try to improve his image on TV, said that presentation had a role to play but that it was not his top priority. “David Cameron is a very sophisticated and successful exponent of a politics based on image. I am not going to able to compete with that….. It’s not where my talents lie —as you may have noticed,” he said.

“I am not from central casting. You can find people who are more square-jawed. More chiselled. Look less like Wallace [from Wallace & Gromit]. You could probably even find people who look better eating a bacon sandwich. 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.”

Video: Watch part of Miliband's speech here

Trying to re-set the election debate, Mr Miliband  appealed to voters to decide what really mattered -- photo ops or decency; soundbites or policy; image or ideas; style or substance and C-list celebrities or real debate.

He is gambling that many voters are fed up with spin and soundbites and will warm to a more authentic and serious approach. But some Labour critics said last night that the public would be more interested in policy – especially on the economy – than a debate about style versus substance.

The remarkable speech to 250 Labour activists was a recognition that the Conservatives will make next year’s  election a “choice of two prime ministers.” Opinion polls suggest Mr Miliband is not seen as a prime minister-in-waiting.

miliband-selwyn.png The Labour leader argued: “The current guy might take a good picture but he can’t build a country that works for you. It is not what he most cares about. And you are not who he stands up for.”

Mr Miliband set out his own “gold standard” for a modern leader as big ideas to change things; the principles and courage needed to stick to those beliefs and the decency and empathy to reach out to people from all walks of life.

He conceded that his words and concepts were “sometimes too long or too complicated”, admitting that few people would be talking about “responsible capitalism” on the doorstep because “it doesn’t make a great soundbite.”

But he insisted Labour’s policy was built on “serious thinking” about how to change the economy.

He offered a different kind of leadership based on “big ideas, principles, decency and empathy… something which seeks not just to defeat the Tories but overcome cynicism.”

The  Labour leader warned his own party: “Our biggest obstacle isn’t the Conservative Party. It is cynicism. The belief that nobody can make a difference.” He said many people believed that politicians “are in it for ourselves, for our own success, not the country’s.”

He went on: “They believe we value posturing more than principle. Good photos or soundbites more than a decent policy. Image more than ideas. And it is no surprise that people think that. Because so often the terms of trade of politics - the way it is discussed and rated - has become about the manufactured, the polished, the presentational.

“Politics is played out as showbiz, a game, who is up and who is down. Rather than the best chance a lot of people have to change their lives. This is not new but it has got worse. Politicians have fuelled it. The media feed it.”

He congratulated Mr Cameron for making his name as Leader of the Opposition  with “some fantastic photos, like hanging out with huskies in the Arctic Circle,” adding: “Even my biggest supporters would say I haven’t matched him on that.”

But he accused Mr Cameron of not living up to his pre-election image, saying he now wanted to “cut the green crap” and, after posing as a “compassionate Conservative”,  now acted as a “callous Conservative”.

Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party chairman, said: “All Ed Miliband can talk about is himself. If he wants to be taken seriously he should be talking about the economy and how we can secure a better future for our children and grandchildren. Not why he struggles to eat a bacon sandwich.”