The Labour leader’s claim to resemble an unprepossessing Plasticine model seems an odd way to curry favour
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” That was Times political cartoonist Peter Brookes’s advice last week to those having the piss taken out of them, specifically Ed Miliband who Brookes has famously likened to Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. It’s bad advice. You can always beat ’em, just by ignoring ’em. When I first watched The Day Today in the early 90s, I thought its savage parody of the vacuously self-important style in which television news was packaged would change broadcasting forever. I was wrong. The satirists were completely disregarded as news producers continued to make ever more melodramatic, repetitive and graphically absurd programmes.
The Ed Miliband/Wallace comparison is not a joke that makes me laugh. I don’t think Miliband is like Wallace at all. He certainly doesn’t look like him: Wallace is bald with huge ears and an anatomically impossible grin. Miliband has a thick head of hair, normal ears and a sort of nervous smile. He may look just as gormless, but it’s in a totally different way. If anything, his brother David looks more like Wallace because he really does have Wallace-style jug ears. This makes me wonder whether Brookes originally planned it the other way round; the first Ed-Miliband-as-Wallace drawing came out just after Ed had edged that Labour leadership contest which most people expected David to win. David is depicted as Gromit, pissing on Ed’s foot. I do find that part quite funny because it involves piss.
Anyway it “captured the public’s imagination” – mainly, in my view, because Miliband initially took neither Brookes’s advice nor mine. He didn’t join ’em and he didn’t ignore ’em – he expressed annoyance: “Come off it. Let’s start to have a grown-up debate in this country.” (Crowd-pleasing stuff: a grown-up debate! Perhaps, if we’re good, we can have an interminable lecture afterwards?) Showing that you’re annoyed by a joke seldom stops it being told except among those who genuinely fear the consequences of your wrath. And there being no one on Earth who fears the consequences of his wrath is one thing Ed Miliband undoubtedly has in common with Wallace.
So Ed’s irritation immediately made the joke funnier. It became better sport to repeat it and it seemed like a cleverer comparison by virtue of the fact that it had touched a nerve. Were Brian Blessed to complain angrily and defensively enough that he “didn’t come across as effeminate”, he would gradually start to seem girly.
Having foolishly missed his opportunity to ignore it, perhaps in the mistaken belief that most of the electorate reads the Times, Miliband has been struggling to deal with the gag ever since. In a speech in June, he actually described himself as “Somebody who looks like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit”. If he’s going to lie in a speech, I’d advise him to pick something that might be more helpful to his political fortunes. Something like “I know how to fix the economy” or “Under Labour, we’ll cut the deficit and increase public spending”. Claiming to look like an unprepossessing Plasticine model he does not in fact remotely resemble seems an odd way to curry favour.
Last week his press secretary, Tom Baldwin, took it a stage further: “What’s wrong with Wallace?” he wanted to know. “He’s a man of principle, who achieves what he wants to do, and he prevails in the end because he’s honourable, decent, a great British hero.” Brookes provided the answer: “He doesn’t exactly strike you as Prime Ministerial material.” This gets to the heart of why the comparison is damaging. There was already a perception that Ed Miliband was too geeky, too much of an unworldly politics nerd, to have a realistic chance of power. So it didn’t matter how unlike Miliband Wallace was, as long as they shared the attribute of seeming an improbable sort to be prime minister.
This sequence of events is depressing for two reasons. First, because the media’s perception of Wallace as an un-prime ministerial character doesn’t make sense. He’s exactly the sort of person we look to for leadership. He isn’t, as Miliband is accused of being, weak, vacillating, unadventurous and academic. This is a man who has crazy and dangerous plans, who invents and builds potentially lethal machines, and then uses them, imposing his own certainty on the world around him with apparent unconcern for the safety of his fellow citizens. He is a self-confident maniac who has only escaped death or jail thanks to the miraculous ingenuity of his dog.
These are the sort of flaws we mistake for strengths when choosing our leaders and Ed Miliband shows few signs of possessing any of them. The only reason Wallace, who has all the megalomaniacal certainty of Thatcher, seems an unlikely leader is that he wears a tank top and sounds like Peter Sallis. We don’t notice what he says and does, and only perceive an ageing northern mediocrity. The media’s ingrained ageism, classism and pro-southern bias makes us miss the fact that Wallace possesses many of the attributes that we quite wrongly always look for in a leader.
Second, beyond the dismal likelihood that, for all our moaning about David Cameron’s poshness, it’s a quality which makes him seem authoritative to voters, it’s stupid that we look for Wallace/Thatcher/Blair-like confidence in a potential prime minister. We know for sure that it’s a job that’s almost impossible to do well. A British prime minister has fewer powers than responsibilities. He’s expected to save the UK from harm in the storms of international politics and economics, but doesn’t have the clout to do so. He can only ride the country’s luck. Any politician saying otherwise, we know – we completely know from experience – is either lying or deluded. They’re like someone looking you in the eye and saying: “I always win at Russian roulette. It doesn’t matter how many times I pull the trigger, the bullet will never be in the chamber for me.” Such a person would be sectioned yet, in electoral terms, similar assertions are mistaken for statesmanship and destiny.
In the 1950s Frank Muir and Denis Norden were introduced to Mel Brooks as “the BBC’s experts on comedy”. He replied in mock awe: “You mean, you know?” They didn’t of course. Like him, all they knew was that, when it comes to what’s funny, no one knows for sure. The same goes for political office. Maybe one day we’ll elect someone who admits it.
David Mitchell’s autobiography, Back Story, is out now