Earlier in the week I missed a discussion between Danny Finkelstein (probably behind a paywall), Will Straw and various others about the Sunday Times/YouGov poll and whether the question about Ed Miliband being too ugly to be Prime Minister was a legitimate thing to ask about.

For those wishing to save time, my short answer is “hell, yes!”

Now the long answer. In one sense, it’s not really up to the pollster to judge. A pollster might refuse questions that are grossly tasteless or risk contempt of court, but generally speaking we don’t judge. Sure, I might like every question to be a highbrow academic one, but newspapers commission polls for journalistic reasons, not out of the goodness of their heart, and that means our fair share of “which dog does this politician most resemble” questions.

However, questions about a politicians looks are entirely legitimate, since it is an important factor in their electability. In his post Danny Finkelstein is right to point to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Robert Cialdini, but there here is also more direct empirical evidence, such as this paper from last year which based on a large scale US survey found people with little knowledge of politics but who watched a lot of TV were likely to be influenced by hte candidates’ appearances (which also includes a summary of other relevant recent research), or this paper (Free, but requires annoying registration) that found people’s judgement of which of two unknown candidates *looked* more competent predicted who actually won at a much greater rate than chance would suggest.

We might wish that people voted purely on dry policy and ideological preferences, but all the evidence is that they don’t. If factors like what politicians look like actually are very important, then it is right and proper that polls ask about them – our role is to reflect public opinion as it is, not as we would like it to be and, by extention, we should be investigating the factors that actually drive voting intentions, not those that we think should. If anything there are too many questions asked about the minutae of policies and not enough about party image and perceptions of the leaders.

The downside of the particular question in the poll is that it didn’t, in the end, really answer the question very well. We know from the other questions in the poll that Miliband’s appearance *is* an issue – 70% of people agreed that Miliband does “not look or sound like a possible Prime Minister”, including 79% of those people who said that he has the “right policies”.

However, 72% of people said that Ed Miliband wasn’t “too ugly” to be Prime Minister, so the question doesn’t really tell us much about what those 70% think is the problem with him. I’m not that surprised – just because appearance is actually important for a politician, it doesn’t mean the public recognise this. I think you’d be hard pressed to find people who actually admit to pollsters, or to themselves, that they are influenced by it – we think we are influenced by policies, ideologies, perceptions of trust and competence… even if subconsciously we are biased towards the taller candidate, or the one with the nicest hair.

The fact that 70% recognise that there is such a thing as not looking like a possible Prime Minister does at least suggest that polling on it isn’t a complete write-off, but so far we don’t know anything about why. Is it Ed Miliband’s looks, his mannerisms, his voice, the way he articulates his arguments, or just looking goofy in photos? I don’t know, but it’s a problem that is important for him to solve if he wants to be a success – and therefore something that polling should be exploring.

(For clarity, normally the Sunday Times poll is written by me, but I’m currently off on leave, so I didn’t actually write the question I’m defending!)

198 Responses to “On whether Ed is “too ugly””

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  1. This article is an interesting read on prejudices. You can read the abstract here: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/01/04/0956797611421206.abstract

    “Hodson, G. and M. A. Busseri (2012). “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact.” Psychol Science.

  2. Plus, the “pay freeze to prevent more job losses” argument has already been deployed by the government. Part of the “sell” for reducing police pay is that if they don’t, they will need to cut other parts of the budget (ie less equipment and/or less staff).

    So even that part of the new Labour plan is essentially an adoption of government policy.

  3. @ Tark

    “You’re right, it is ugly, but I really don’t think I’m wrong. We will have to agree to disagree. The point of dog whistle words and phrases is that appear to be normal discourse, but they aren’t. Sorry, anti-semitism is the preserve of both left and right. This isn’t a party political thing.

    I know DC has Jewish ancestors, but he himself is not Jewish – there is a difference.”

    You’re right. Just because people don’t want to talk about something because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not true or shouldn’t be talked about. There are a lot of ugly things out there but they don’t go away just because you refuse to address them and don’t talk about them.

    I think there is ethnic Jewishness and religious Jewishness. They’re obviously not mutually exclusive and often run together. I think though that both Cameron and Miliband would fall into the category of ethnic Jews. Both have Jewish ancestry (I didn’t know this about Cameron) but neither practices Judiasm as a religion. Cameron is an Anglican (I think) and Miliband is an atheist.

  4. @SoCal,

    But surely the point of Tark’s concerns about subliminal anti-semitism is that it relates to appearance. Therefore it is entirely about ethnic Jewishness.

    Cameron doesn’t have as much of a “classical Jewish look” about him as Miliband. Benjamin Disraeli, on the other hand, looked very Jewish despite being a Christian. It didn’t stop him getting to the top.

  5. It may well be that Ed is looking for a “Clause” moment.

    Cameron got a bounce over the Eu for being tough with Europe. His ratings for being strong and decisive went up which made Milliband look weak in comparison.

    So with Labour being still blamed for the state of the economy more than the government and making no headway with alternatives to Tory cuts something had to be done.

    It needed to be seen as decisive,to attract new voters,while not losing any existing ones!

    Q. Who then to take on and on what?
    A. Your own side who have no where else to go, on the economy.

    Look tough while triangulating on the opposition.

    I see two problems in this;

    Firstly, the more they triangulate on policy the more personalities while be the difference and that takes us back to “Wallace v Colin Firth” and Secondly;

    As last year showed, in Scotland, there is somewhere else to go…..

    Cllr Peter Cairns (SNP)

  6. Neil A

    Disraeli didn’t get a State Funeral, mind.Unlike the other political giant of his age.

    But from political giants to Adam Boulton. The man is an utter waste of space. He just interviewed EdM, who gave several examples of areas in which Labour would be fiscally harsh (which they had said from 2010 onwards) and pointed out several areas where he has led the political agenda. Boulton, in his discussion with the anchor then ignored all of these and said that the problem for Miliband was that he was inconsistent and stealing Tory policies. There was no point having the interview. We could have saved the trouble of listening to the interview and just listened to Boulton’s pre-formed opinion. Boulton is a perfect example of the poverty of the political debate – glib superficialities with no interest in exploring ideas.

  7. Lefty –

    Disraeli was offered one, but refused it in his will.

  8. “UK House of Lords votes against proposal to delay changes to Disability Living Allowance, by 229 to 213. ”


  9. @LEFTY

    The economy. Folk are still waiting to see what happens.

  10. Strangely, Hague, IDS and Howard are the only leaders of the Conservative party who did not serve as PM.

    Pre 1945 Labour had only one PM – J Ramsey MacDonald… 1924 and 1929-31 (1931-35 he was no longer Labour leader).

    Post 1945, Gaiskell, Foot, Smith and Kinnock did not get to be PM.

  11. AW. Thanks for the info. I did not know that.

    By the way, in your vast library of polling data, do you have the famous polls after the 1960 US televised presidential debate? Is it true that the pollees who had heard the debate on the radio thought that Nixon was comfortably the better of the two, but those who had seen the TV pictures of him looking florid & sweating due to flu had Kennedy down as the winner? Or us that an urban myth?

  12. Neil A

    Plus, the “pay freeze to prevent more job losses” argument has already been deployed by the government. Part of the “sell” for reducing police pay is that if they don’t, they will need to cut other parts of the budget (ie less equipment and/or less staff).
    So even that part of the new Labour plan is essentially an adoption of government policy.

    So, is the Right’s case against Labour:
    a) They are deficit deniers who won’t support cuts?
    b) They are stealing Tory policies?

    One or the other lads. One or the other.

  13. @Lefty.

    One, then the other. Which if I’m not mistaken is also what the unions are attacking them for. But from the other side.

  14. I’ve made it quite clear I think that Ed and Ed are right to support “austerity”, although possibly not tactically astute.

  15. Lefty – sadly I think it’s a bit of a myth, the data it’s based upon is apparently very sparse

  16. LEFTYLAMPTON………..No, the Right’s case against Labour is…… ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ is no way to run an opposition. :-)

  17. What’s become of tonight’s “Sun” tweet?

  18. Neil A

    So. No more of this Deficit Denier nonsense then eh, now we’re onto phase 2?

    Grateful for small mercies I suppose.

  19. If they admit the need for cuts, they’re no longer deficit deniers. My opinions change as the facts change!!

  20. Ken

    I was going to say that that approach didn’t do Cameron any harm c.2006-08.

    Then I remembered that he ballsed up the most propitious electoral circumstances that the Tory party has had for 80 years.

    So, yeah. I take your point.

  21. Billy Bob,
    Austen Chamberlain was another Tory leader who failed to become PM.

  22. Had George Osborne gone for a plan B and virtually copied the Balls doctrine 6 months ago, the Tories would never have heard the end of the “U TURN”.
    It would have outraged Tory supporters as well.

    This is precisely what has happened in reverse, and quite honestly the public will see through it. People will consider the argument with the unions as internecine warfare and left wing MPs will become at least as big a problem for Miliboy as the anti Europeans are to Cameron.

    Already, Harman is trying to make some sense of “we abhor all the cuts but we will not change them”. “This cut and that cut is wicked ………….but it stays”. Further, what the hell has Balls been talking about since a year last May, if austerity is the new way forward ?

  23. This is going to be an unedifying post of me rating politicians on their looks, but it’s in keeping with the thread so oh well:

    I don’t understand why Ed Miliband is considered ugly, in fact, embarrassing as it is to admit, I think he’s quite cute, he’s certainly more attractive than David Cameron, whose face has an annoying pudgy look, and probably the more attractive of the Miliband brothers (I disagree with Richard O’s girlfriend on this score). I also agree with SoCal Re: Jeremy Hunt being good looking to me which is a source of irritation to me, because I find him so objectionable on so many other counts.

    John Murphy is right about the selective use of pictures in the media, during the leadership contest pictures of Ed were usually pretty flattering. Since he’s been leader the media have delighted in printing pictures of him with his eyes looking stary or his mouth twisted, and the like.

    I think the whole conversation about whether someone “looks like a prime minister” is vapid, irrelevant and deeply reactionary, because it promotes a narrow standard of what types of people ought to be prime minister, and, whilst the suggestions of antisemitism are overblown, this tends to reflect historic prejudices. Also, given that appearance is so heavily edited and mediated by the media this grants the press a lot of power, as they’re demonstrating now. They never approved of or accepted Miliband a leader, so they’re trashing him in as many ways possible until the Labour Party delivers them a leader more to their liking, and this has substantial implications for democracy.

    I also think that the concept of choosing leaders based on “look” is damaging for politics in this country. For example the boosting of Chuka Umunna. Who, actually knows what his politics and ideas are? And yet he’s being tipped as leader by many around here, because he “looks the part.” Is this really how we’re choosing potential Prime Ministers now?

  24. Billy bob

    I feel it is a bit harsh to include smith in the list of labour leaders that never became pm. The man died before he had a chance, I know most parties are led by metaphorical zombies but having a real zombie as a party leader would be a bit much even for the labour party

  25. graham
    His Dad Joe was never PM in name either. Of course Joe was technically a Liberal, but supported Salisbury for donkey’s years.

  26. I think most people are agreed that Smith would have conquered the Tories in 1997, by a landslide not far different to that Blair achieved.

  27. @Neil A,

    Without doubt.

  28. The two Eds are not agreeing with either austerity or Government policy, all they ar saying is that if they win the next election they can’t guarantee to reverse any or all cuts made or remove pay freezes. Jobs will likely be the priority.

    The point is, surely, that the policy of austerity and little or no growth will have done the damage and any Labour government will have to play the cards it is dealt.

  29. Interesting quote from Alan Rusbridger at the Leveson enquiry.

    “question of how Milly Dowler’s voicemails came to be deleted is not a “primary issue” for the inquiry, Mr Rusbridger said.”

    Funny, I thought Milly Dowler was the reason we were having the enquiry!

  30. Why are “the intelligent people’ on this site being so obtuse? What Ed is saying is that they will not be able to reverse all the cuts of this Coalition because they don’t know how big a deficit and mess they will inherit. Surely it is better to see what state the country is in in 2015 and what will be the priorities then before deciding where money should be spent.

  31. billy bob
    Bonar Law, was never PM. a SCOTS TORY, he should have been preserved in aspic.

  32. As far as I can tell, the Eds are saying that boosting rather than cutting spending in 2010-2011 would be a great idea, but boosting rather than cutting spending in 2015-2016 would be a bad idea.

  33. @Graham

    Thanks for your reply… Wikipedia has Austin Chamberlain as Leader of Commons (with Curzon as Leader of Lords) during Lloyd George’s time as PM – so technically the post of overall leader was vacant .

    cf Andrew Bonar Law/Lansdowne while Asquith was PM, and Stafford Northcote/Salisbury during Gladstone’s premiership.

    Formal overall leaders were not elected until 1922

  34. NEIL A…………The Tories engineered their own downfall, Smith, had he lived, had an open goal, mind you, so did Kinnock, many a slip……! :-)

  35. Neil

    “As far as I can tell, the Eds are saying that boosting rather than cutting spending in 2010-2011 would be a great idea, but boosting rather than cutting spending in 2015-2016 would be a bad idea.”

    No. They are saying that they can’t guarantee to reverse cuts. Spending will be required but the priority will be growth, as now.

    I think we’ll all be pretety well f*cked by then unless we see a change in policy in Europe and some proper stimulation.

  36. C39 L40 LD8 GA -22

    Polldrums, but looking pretty dire for LDs.

  37. @chouenlai

    Bonar Law was a Canadian… Arthur Balfour and IDS are the non-English Tory leaders.

  38. “Why are other “intelligent people” on this site changing their opinions on austerity, cuts and the need to play your cards as per the hand you are dealt, when last week it was spend spend spend. Frankly you are like a bunch of robots.”

    I haven’t changed my opinion. I don’t mind a pay freeze if there is any element of fairness, redistribution, preserving jobs instead of dumping folk onto the dole, and most of all, a policy for growth.

  39. But I thought freezing public sector pay took money out of the economy, reducing demand, stifling growth and thereby increasing the deficit in the long-term?

    Or is that not the case any more?

    “Frankly you are like a bunch of robots.”

    Pots, kettles come to mind.

  41. @chouenlai

    Bonar Law was overall Tory leader .. while he was PM 1922-23.

    @richard in norway

    Wasn’t intending to be harsh on Smith by any means – but by implication you were being harsh on the others. ;)

  42. Neil A

    NEIL A
    But I thought freezing public sector pay took money out of the economy, reducing demand, stifling growth and thereby increasing the deficit in the long-term?
    Or is that not the case any more?

    Come on lad. Keep up. Both Balls and Miliband clearly said that restraint in public pay is necessary if the alternative is loss of jobs. Giving large pay rises with one hand and recouping the cost by job losses is no stimulus.

    More seriously, we’re again on this ground of being able to have a grown up debate on the single most important issue of the decade. There is an honest and clear difference of opinion between Labour and the Tories. There was before last weekend and there still is today. Labour still believe that cutting too rapidly will be damaging in the medium term and will result in higher debt in the medium term. That is in no way whatsoever inconsistent with publicly discussing the balance between public sector pay and public sector jobs.

    That the Tories are consistently playing the man rather than the ball speaks volumes for their confidence on the substantive economic issues.

  43. “unable”

  44. NEIL A.
    The lib dem number looks like a high ‘outlier’ to me.

  45. Billy bob

    I forgot the :smile: with my last post, I was pulling your leg a bit

  46. @ Bill Patrick

    “The idea of “public sector pay restraint for the sake of employment” is a good one.”


  47. I’m sure someone has said this already, but I can’t help but wonder what the public/media reaction would be to a ‘is this person too ugly’ question asked of a woman.

    Is Angela Merkel too ugly to be Chancellor?

    I imagine the response would quite rightly be one of sad despair.

  48. In all this talk about whether or not Ed Miliband is “too ugly” to be PM – I come back to the obvious follow-up question – compared to who??? Gordon Brown was pretty atrocious looking and reminded me of an unmade bed. If we want to talk about physically unattractive past PMs – what about Harold Wilson or Clement Attlee? On the Tory side, William Hague was no raving beauty either and let’s not even get into John major

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