The real lessons of Rochester

It is possible Ed Miliband reacted so badly to Emily Thornberry's error of judgement because her outlook is so similar to his own
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The Independent Online

The search for authenticity is one of the dominant themes of modern politics. The by-election in Rochester and Strood last week unexpectedly turned into a story not about the authenticity of the candidate who won the seat or the one who lost it, but about that of the Labour leader, whose candidate came a sorry third.

Ed Miliband managed to turn a small story about an unwise photograph on social media into a big story about his party's difficulty in persuading voters that it understands the lives of working people. Emily Thornberry's reaction to a house draped with three England flags was authentic enough, but that is not the kind of authenticity that helps to win elections. It is possible that Mr Miliband reacted so badly to her error of judgement because he realised that her outlook is so similar to his own. He chose her as his ministerial aide when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and she was the first MP to nominate him for the Labour leadership.

He lent credence to this thesis by his inauthentic attempt to ingratiate himself with the flag-waving and white-van-driving parts of the electorate by saying how much "respect" he had for them, as John Rentoul writes today. In an article for the Daily Mirror yesterday, he said: "There is nothing unusual or odd about having England flags in your window." Which is an unusual and odd way to put it. It is, in fact, fairly unusual to put the St George's cross in your window. What he meant was that he did not think that there was anything wrong with it.

These are the kinds of contortions to which one is driven if you are always calculating how a focus group would respond, and if you lack the life experience to be sure of what you think. It is the sort of thing that leads Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to make a "safe" choice of desert island discs for BBC radio today. Presumably she does like "Dancing Queen" by Abba and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", the hymn, but it is hard to escape the feeling that her selection has been made with half an eye to what everyone else likes.

Partly, this is a problem of the professionalisation of politics. As Hazel Blears, an authentic Labour politician, said on the Today programme yesterday, it is a problem that so many leaders have been special advisers. George Osborne, the Chancellor, may dismiss this fashionable view, defending the "guild" of professional politicians who take their craft seriously and who have learned its special skills. But that is the sort of thing that leads him – and David Cameron – to "too clever by half" gimmickry and a national consensus that he and the Prime Minister are "out of touch".

Hence the appeal of authentic characters such as Alan Johnson, although he shirks his duty to his country and his party by refusing to make himself available as leader. Or of Boris Johnson, who is likelier than either Ms May or Mr Osborne to be the next leader of the Conservative Party. Or of Nicola Sturgeon, who became First Minister of Scotland last week and thus overtook the Mayor of London as the most popular elected politician in the UK. Despite, in her case, being a professional politician (she was briefly a solicitor before election to the Scottish Parliament at the age of 28).

The lesson of last week is a familiar one: that we would benefit from more national leaders who have experience outside politics, and preferably of managing large organisations. There is also a second lesson, above all for Mr Miliband. If you are a professional politician with limited experience of the world of normal work, do not try to pretend to be something you are not. In particular, if someone asks you what you think when you see a white van parked outside a house, do not say: "What goes through my mind is respect."