Anthony Sampson: Leaders’ Personalities Does Not Affect Election Results

Over the past year or so there’s been considerable debate about Ed Miliband’s character, and whether he has the personality to engage the public and win a victory for Labour at the coming elections. Miliband has been criticised for being ‘geeky’, ‘nerdy’, and appearing far more confident in the lecture room than on the hustings in front of a crowd. You remember all the jokes made a few months ago about him eating a bacon sandwich ‘weirdly’.

His awkward demeanour in front of the camera and the crowd is contrasted with Cameron’s, who appears far more confident. As well he might, given that at his level of society and in the public schools they have a sense of arrogance and entitlement drummed into them. They are literally the lords and ladies of all they survey, and take it as their natural right that they should lead the country and command the respect, fortunes and lives of lesser mortals. Such arrogance and condescension oozes from Cameron, just as it oozes from Gideon/ George Osborne, Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith.

Yet the anxieties about Miliband’s personality may be mistaken. Mike has recently pointed out over at Vox Political that the perception of Miliband as awkward, hesitant and geeky are in fact mistaken. Conservative critics have spoken about his superb debating skills and that he is actually a determined, decisive leader. Nevertheless, the image has stuck.

It may not lead to Labour losing the election, however. Anthony Sampson discusses the way the personality of a party’s leader doesn’t necessary affect the fortunes of their party at the polls in his book, Who Runs This Place? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st. He describes Blair’s 1997 election victory, and his personality that seemed more positive and attractive than that of his opponents.

He appeared as his party’s saviour. With his welcoming smile, fresh unlined face and bright eye, he was the most obviously likeable and presentable prime minister in the twentieth century. And at the age of forty-three, he was the youngest since Lord Liverpool in 1812 – younger than Harold Wilson at forty-eight.

He goes on, however, to argue that Blair’s personality didn’t necessarily have much to do with Labour’s victory.

In fact New Labour’s victory had not depended on Blair’s popularity. Labour had been leading in the polls under JOhn Smith, and the popularity of leaders was always less important in winning elections than the public assumed, as Professor Anthony King has pointed out. When the Conservatives won the 1970 election Harold Wilson was rated higher in the polls than Edward Heath; when they won again in 1979 James Callaghan was more popular than Margaret Thatcher. And Labour would almost certainly have won without Blair in 1997 and 2001. (p. 80).

This isn’t to say that we should be complacent about Miliband’s personality and Labour winning the election. But it does mean that the Tories have far less chance of winning than all their talk about Cameron’s supposed confidence and assured leadership suggests.

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