Ed Miliband's novel speech could flip some of his negatives into positives

Ed Miliband Gestures

Politicians in trouble often home in on the negative, but normally against their opponent, rather than themselves.

In a novel speech on Friday, Ed Miliband reeled off what the media and others have listed as his drawbacks, ranging from his misjudgments, unchiselled looks, abstruse language and inability to eat a bacon sandwich with a modicum of grace. It was as if Labour could hardly run a summer campaign on "the choice" facing the country next year without confronting the biggest choice voters may have to make – that between him or David Cameron as prime minister.

So Miliband decided to come out and finally admit what the rest of the political establishment, and much of the public, have realised all along – he is not a conventional retail politician. Self-liberation is rarely a stupid move, and although it met with the wall of cynicism that he decries in politics, it has the potential to flip some of his negatives into positives.

He was in essence asking people to rethink what they want from their leaders in the modern age. If it is image, a glib patter on local radio, or chameleon bandwagon politics, and a certain complacency about the condition of Britain, the other guy is your man. If leadership involves big ideas, emotional intelligence, decency, a willingness to stand up against the powerful or an ability to create a consensus, Milband might a better leader for our flatter, less hierarchical age.

The attack in the speech on photo-op politics is high-wire stuff. Miliband is currently advertising for an £80,000 broadcasting officer precisely to improve his bacon backdrops. Any newspaper picture library can produce a thick file of grinning Miliband portraits next to a celebrity. The charge can be laid that he is as guilty as the next politician of playing photo-op politics, but he is just not a very good exponent.

Complaining about the media is the equivalent of demanding water run uphill. It is the kind of thing outgoing thrice-elected prime ministers, such as Tony Blair, can do, as indeed he did in his feral beast speech in 2006. The danger for Miliband is that it risks sounding like a whinge.

Yet he was astute enough to argue it was the political class just as much as the media who were responsible for the battle against ideas.

Broadly, his self-portrait was authentic, the pre-condition of him getting a hearing with the voters. William Hague wearing a baseball cap at the Notting Hill carnival only reminded one he was from Yorkshire and read Hansard at 16. The quiet man Iain Duncan Smith's promise to turn up the volume produced ribald comparisons with Clint Eastwood.

Nor is Miliband being forced by his aides to stretch the limits of his personality. They have to work with what they have got. Michael Howard never highlighted his bedside manner. Michael Foot never wore Burberry, and nobody inserted "on the other hand" into a speech by Margaret Thatcher.

The best passages may have been an appeal for principle and substance in politics, the appeal Brown made when he offered himself as Not Flash, Just Gordon.

Miliband said: "My true test of leadership is not just whether you look the part, but whether you can retain your soul. We expect from our friends and family an ability to listen and understand our problems, our point of view. But if we expect it in our normal life, why not in politics ?" Those are questions that resonate.

But the ultimate question may not be whether Miliband is seen as decent, but whether voters can trust him to be competent.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour, for theguardian.com on Friday 25th July 2014 17.58 Europe/London

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