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David Randall: Ed for PM... but who'd vote for him?

What's in a diminutive version of a name?

So, "Ed" Miliband is now in position to become prime minister one day, potentially joining a long line of previous holders of this office such as Harry Macmillan, Tony Eden, Stan Baldwin, Nev Chamberlain, Andy Bonar Law, Dave Lloyd George, Herbie Asquith, Benny Disraeli, Bob Peel, Artie Wellington, Spence Perceval, Billie Pitt, and Bobby Walpole.

It is a measure of our own times, as well as theirs, that none of these people would have answered to these names. But democracy has its own imperatives, and such they are that almost the last thing any politician would insist upon now is the use of his or her full and correct given name. So, since the mid-1970s, it has been Jim, Maggie, Tony, and now Dave – the need to be seen as "in touch", relevant, and matey overriding all else, in public at least. Did anyone ever call Mrs Thatcher "Maggie" to her face? One suspects not. And even in the connubial circles of the coalition, not all Mr Cameron's colleagues greet him as "Dave", apparently.

It's a funny old business, these first names and their shortened forms. I've known parents who christened their sons Christopher driven to the very fringes of rage by people calling their child "Chris". It's odd, because this is a rare case of a name whose shortened version carries no particular class baggage. Many others do. Michael Heseltine conjures up one image, for instance. Mick Heseltine quite another. It is difficult to imagine the blonde Adonis of Henley-on-Thames being able, in the famous graphic phrase, to "tickle the clitoris of the Tory Party conference" to quite the same effect if he had been introduced as Micky Heseltine.

So it is with Edward, which has a wide range of short forms, all of which have a niche in the social scale. Generally speaking, Ted fixes the owner as being of a certain age, unlikely to be under 55. Teddy is the rather more upmarket version; the man riding next to you at the Berkeley Hunt might possibly be a Teddy, but never a Ted. And Eddie, commonly used by even the Royal family in the 19th century as the preferred short form of Edward, is now old hat, and suggests horny-handedness rather than blue blood – Eddie Stobart, rather than Prince Eddie. Ed, meanwhile, is the affectionate version favoured by the fashionable or boss class today, and is sufficiently recent to be rare among the over-45s.

And so we come to David (Dave), a subject on which I have some expertise. This, more than almost any other name, covers between its two forms a huge amount of sociological territory. In my own nondescript suburban world, David is for normal dealings with officialdom, mere acquaintances, and my byline. Dave is for my wife, brother, close colleagues, and a few old friends, which is why it jars when PR people I've never met begin emails with "Hi Dave!"

My objection is to the faux mateyness, but there is no doubt that other undercurrents may be at work. Dave – not for nothing the name of a TV channel largely devoted to laddish programming such as endless re-runs of Top Gear – can have a decidedly downmarket, or at least, uneducated tinge.

Our Prime Minister, unlike the elder Miliband, has intimates who call him Dave, but the use of a short form can be destabilising, particularly for those who set much store by the correct forms of address. Our late Alan Watkins was one such, and I often wondered what his reaction would have been if we had greeted his appearance in the office with cries of "Hello Al!" He would have regarded it, I fancy, as a discourtesy, having no desire to make himself more "accessible" to readers or colleagues by adopting the mateyfication of his given name.

We may well have lost something when our politicians ceased to feel the same. You'd vote for an Edward, but an Ed? Hmmm.