Chris White writes: Policies or personalities?

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, described Pope Gregory IX as ‘a Pharisee seated on the chair of pestilence, anointed with the oil of wickedness’. The Pope replied that the Emperor was the forerunner of the Antichrist and the monster of the Apocalypse. (‘The Popes’, by John Julius Norwich, 2011).

Such was political debate in the 13th century, topped up by episodes of unspeakable violence.

At this distance it seems rather laughable that an Emperor and a Prelate (especially one considering himself the Vicar of Christ) should behave like that.

But while burning at the stake is now thankfully behind us, vitriol is not. The only loveable thing about George Galloway is his ability to abuse (come on – you were grinning when he appeared before the US Senate). Overstatement is the coinage of many – from Christopher Hitchens to Richard Dawkins to Brian Sewell.

And politicians are as keen nowadays on the ad hominem hyperbole as anyone. Danny Alexander had only recently to put up with a purely personal attack from a member of the Labour front bench. We all tutted.

Are we better? We like to think so but I fear that our literature has tended to move from substance to personality all too quickly. Labour candidate X was often ‘Gordon Brown’s man’. Candidate Y lived miles from the constituency unlike our guy who lived …er.. fewer miles away.

Ed Miliband is starting to struggle and it will be tempting to play to the pub audience and talk about his appearance or speech mannerisms. This did for William Hague and Michael Foot – and didn’t help Neil Kinnock. In the nineties our man Ashdown was, by contrast, a regular guy whose mannerisms (jacket over shoulder, upturned spider when emphasising a point) were loveable rather than laughable.

And if it’s not personal it’s the company you keep. Miliband Junior can lazily be accused of being elected only on the trade union vote, as if somehow Labour MPs strongly disapprove of the union votes in their party constitution.

The reason to attack Ed Miliband is not that he is a bit of an Oxford geek (so am I) or even that he is associated now with Ed Balls.

It is because he leads a party which has not yet repented of its attack on civil liberties and which pretends that the financial crisis was not worsened by its decision, when confronted with the cliff edge in 2008, to put its foot on the accelerator.

Meanwhile, instead of saying ‘unpopular Z can’t win here’ we could talk about some positives: better pensions, fewer paying income tax, the end of ID cards. There’s already quite a list.

Ashdown did have a good personal image. But his real legacy was an idea that really resonated: a penny on income tax for education.
A policy like that, which really speaks to ordinary people, is – in medieval terminology – the Holy Grail.

Time we got another one.

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