Could Dan Jarvis's face be what Labour needs?

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 13 January 2012 in Diary
It isn't just female politicians who get judged on their appearance, it seems. Could it be that Ed Miliband just doesn't look enough like a leader to succeed?

This week, the discussion between commentators and sketchwriters of Ed Miliband and his leadership has become louder still as they mulled over his 'relaunch' on Tuesday. I’m not going to add my voice to that already-crowded conversation at this point, but I would just say this – at what point did it become impossible to mention the Labour leader without qualifying it with ‘embattled’ or ‘under pressure’? If the worst happens, I think Ed will look back on that moment as the point at which it all started to go downhill.

Bruce Anderson has an excellent column on ConservativeHome this morning that really gets to grips with what lies behind Miliband’s struggles, and I strongly recommend that you read it. His ideas about the different relationships Conservatives and Labourites have with history and how this affects their present-day policies alone are well worth a look.

However, the point I’d like to pick up on is his mention of Dan Jarvis in the final paragraph. In his list of possible replacements for Ed, Dan gets Bruce’s vote, although not quite yet. Anderson says:

“Although he has only just arrived in Parliament, he exudes class. This might be a Tony Blair with moral depth: a good enough politician to lead his party without solving its basic intellectual difficulties. That said, not yet; give the boy a bit of time.”

I happen to agree with him insofar that I think that Jarvis is a future Labour heavyweight. We’ve got an interview with him in the next issue of Total Politics in which he demonstrates this very clearly. This matter of “exuding class” though, and the comparison with Tony Blair, makes me think that this leadership perception problem Labour are having could come down in part to aesthetic considerations.

I mean that in the most literal sense – there’s been a fair amount of debate recently about female politicians’ appearance and whether they should, say, do glamorous GQ shoots if they want to be taken seriously (I recommend Helen Lewis’s take on Louise Mensch over at the New Statesman for some good sense on the matter). Could it be, though, that part of Ed Miliband’s problems stem from the fact that he’s not as good-looking as people think he ought to be?

Anderson suggests too that “the elder Miliband might be marginally more convincing”. Is it not generally agreed that David Miliband is better-looking than his young brother? Then we move up in the handsomeness stakes to Dan Jarvis, who even accounting for the ‘Parliament goggles’ Sadie Smith has introduced me to, cuts quite a dash on the parliamentary estate.

The Jarvis-for-leader conclusion of Anderson’s column freely admits that in taking over he wouldn’t solve the “basic intellectual difficulties” Labour face. Why would he be any better than Ed, then? I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of it is to do with presentation. If Labour have a leader who is attractive enough to satisfy our concept of what a leader should look like, could it be that the carping will stop, even if he makes few or no substantive changes to the party’s position?

We can argue all day about the values of a political system that prizes attractiveness (or a “statesman-like” appearance, if you prefer) in a leader. The interesting point  is that it appears that the men in politics are being judged on their appearance as well as the women. Even if for them, it can be a positive, as well as negative, attribute.

Tags: Bruce Anderson, ConservativeHome, Dan jarvis, David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Labour Party, Louise Mensch, Sadie Smith

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