Earlier this week, Justine Thornton gave a very good interview on the BBC News at 10. Put to one side that the wife of Labour’s trainee Prime Minister lamented that her husband faces personal attacks on his character from opponents during the election campaign. Let us overlook the reality that her husband, Ed Miliband, has been mounting highly personalised attacks on David Cameron’s character. The “dodgy PM” is what he calls the Tory leader.
Other than that quibble it was a strong interview in which she spoke powerfully of why she thinks her husband should win the UK general election taking place on May the 7th. He has principles and beliefs, she said.
But there was something very odd about the BBC footage. When it cut to the section in which Ed and Justine were glimpsed sipping tea in their kitchen, it looked all wrong. Hold on, I thought. That simply cannot be their kitchen. It looked tiny, with no view of the back garden. There is nothing wrong with small kitchens (other than that they could be bigger). Many of us who have graduated to medium-sized kitchens began adult life in flats or apartments in which the kitchen was the size of a coffin and the fridge contained only 2 jars of ageing ragu, the remains of a curry, four bottles of own-brand Belgian lager and one disintegrating avocado. We have all struggled.
But the Milibands live in a very big house in London which may be worth as much as £3m. That tiny little strip of dimly lit space, patched together out of white formica, simply cannot be their kitchen. Can it?
The Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine noticed this too, and she duly wrote a piece in which she ventured into the dangerous territory of Justine’s “home-making” skills. I’ll leave Sarah Vine to run her own defence operation against outraged feminists and others.
But the most interesting notion in her piece had nothing to do with Justine and Ed’s domestic arrangements. It was that that the room in question may not have been the Milibands’ kitchen. Perhaps, she suggested, it was a utility room, the space where they do their washing and jam-making. Did a Labour spin doctor insist that they drank tea there so that viewers got the impression that the party leader and his wife have a standard poky British kitchen?
I don’t know the answer to that question. Even as one of the founders of the Don’t Underestimate Ed Miliband Association (DUEMA, which filed for intellectual bankruptcy several years ago) I have never been invited into the Labour leader’s reportedly lovely home in Dartmouth Park, and I’m not sure what went on between the TV crew and the Milibands’ spindoctors. Some enterprising, thrusting young reporter is going to have to get to the bottom of this by phoning Labour communications chief Tom Baldwin and demanding to know the truth.
Now it emerges, via a helpful friend of the couple, that they have a “really lovely kitchen”. She confirmed that the room which was used for filming was a second kitchen, a little annexe off the drawing room for the storage of snacks. It also looks like a mini-kitchen used to house catering staff when the hosts are having a party. It is clear, that this is not the main kitchen.
There is a serious point though. You knew I would get there eventually. And it is about authenticity.
We hear so much about that word now that political elites – in Britain in particular, but in other countries too – are disliked and even detested.
If a party leader invites a TV crew into his family home he or she is seeking to counter the suggestion that they are somehow remote. They do it to stress their authenticity. Look, they are saying. We’re just like you, or quite like you. We drink tea in our kitchen and we also have a collection of questionable knitwear. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Look at us, they are saying. Look at us in our small, average kitchen.
If it then emerges, as it has done, that for the purposes of filming the Milibands adjourned to the second kitchen to drink their tea, then the purpose of the whole exercise and interview is undermined. Far from it being evidence of authenticity, they look as though they have done something “dodgy” that misleads the viewer, intentionally or not.
This is not easy territory for leaders. When politicians started to use television to sell themselves to a mass-market audience it was more straightforward. Nixon was the first to do it properly, not Kennedy. If you don’t believe me, read Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, by David Greenberg. His central point is that Kennedy didn’t really need television. He looked handsome anyway and was polished. All they had to do was get him to stop wearing hats, to make himself look like the leader of a new generation. The press was never going to expose his private life because that was not done then.
It was the more awkward and far less charismatic Nixon who cunningly used television and advertising techniques to reconstruct his image and, eventually, to win the presidency.
Of course, Thatcher and Reagan were both burnished for TV. Their advisors prescribed better suits and in Thatcher’s case they reworked her voice. But they were both undoubtedly authentic throughout. It would not have occurred to them to have their advisors put them in a setting that made them look authentic. Thatcher and Reagan were authentic.
What went awry, in communications terms, in the Clinton and Blair era is that voters started to be able to see the wiring, partly because scandal was much more easily exposed (Nixon again) and viewers became more savvy about the techniques being used by advertisers to get their custom or their vote. In addition, by taking the market-research approach to new heights, refining it and encouraging the media to focus on it to give their campaigns allure, Clinton and Blair created the impression, eventually picked up by the voters, that it was a game. If the politicians were so cynical, why shouldn’t the voters be cynical too?
Ironically, this leads to poor old Ed Miliband drinking tea with his wife in their (second) kitchen, and then several days of damaging coverage which focusses not on how eloquent Justine is but instead on how her high-taxing Socialist husband has a massive house with two kitchens. Thus, a nice man – sincere in his dangerous beliefs that he knows how to spend other people’s money better than they do themselves, and that big government knows best – ends up looking like a faker when he probably never intended to.