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. Earlier in the week I missed a discussion between Danny Finkelstein, Will Straw and various others (probably behind a paywall) 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!”

    Hell I agree!!

  2. I can see the logic & justification in your piece Anthony.

    All the same, I winced, when John Humphries asked him about being “too ugly”-& I still find it an offensive word somehow.

    As you say ” not looking like a possible Prime Minister” is something which many people recognise as an amalgam of factors & there seems no doubt that it will feature in VI.

    If “too ugly” is some sort of shorthand for “not looking like a possible Prime Minister”, I suppose that is justification of sorts for using it . But I don’t think it is an adequate way of describing the many elements of “not looking like a Prime Minister”, and I do think it is offensive.

  3. Hell I got first too!! :)

  4. Colin – I didn’t hear the John Humphrey’s interview, so I’m not sure how exactly he worded it, but certainly the ugly bit wasn’t really worded the best way.

    It’s a broader issue of appearance, not necessarily one of attractiveness (although having looked through some of the papers I linked to in the article, there apparently is a correlation being looking attractive and looking trustworthy or competent, so they may really be one and the same thing and we’re just being squeamish about language).


    Humphries was quoting someone -I can’t remember who.

    As you have pointed out there is no Polling correlation between the 70% who think EM fails the “looks like a Prime Minister” test, and the 72% who think he passes the “too ugly” test.

    I think the word is offensive-but worse in this context; it fails to encapsulate the amalgam of elements which clearly do move VI.

    So using it in a political OP is pointless.

  6. Colin – exactly, the particular question wording hasn’t got to the bottom of the issue at all… but its a perfectly legitimate thing to ask about and explore


    :” its a perfectly legitimate thing to ask about and explore”

    If you mean -does this person seem Prime Ministerial-I agree.

    It would be helpful perhaps to see Pollsters devising questions which do try to isolate some of the elements of that perception.

  8. Colin,

    I agree with you. I didn’t hear it, but winced when I read it. Humphreys again trying to be “controversial” by the sound of it. He could have just said “the majority of people don’t seem to think you look/act like a PM [which the polls suggest is true]. What do you say to them?”. Asking if he is “too ugly” strikes me as red-top material……………

  9. Colin – the problem, of course, is that we only have three main party leaders and people know who they are so it is difficult to isolate variables.

    It’s probably not a co-incidence that the best research on this comes from the US, where you can show people the photos of candidates in governor races in, for example, Nevada to respondents in Florida and they’ll have no clue who they are!

  10. I’m sorry AW, I don’t think that you can get away with the “we’re neutral” approach.

    It’s as disingenuous as Humphreys and other journalists asking questions under the veil of quoting other people. This seems to be a common practice these days: journos are neutral because they’re not saying X, they are just quoting someone else who was saying X.

    In reality the questions you ask – especially when they are clearly chosen to create a headline – influence the debate, and are designed to do so.

  11. Does Miliband look a bit young to be PM ? The form of the question asked by Humphries was bloody impertinent and I (who am extremely handsome) would have told him so. The magnificent actor Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey) was ugly, but looked like a PM. The ghastly Russell Brand is not thought to ugly, but does not look like a PM. Milibands “persona” is wrong, not his facial features, which may not be film star, but certainly are not offensive.

  12. Anthony

    I posted on the previous thread that:
    “Even another “Miliband is c**p” thread would suffice” (i.e. over anything Scottish). It wasn’t intended for you to take this literally. Mea culpa and a case of “be careful what you wish for”.

    Regarding the thread, it’s good that you weren’t involved in the poll. I consider that Humphries was well out of order, and that should have been the end of the matter. Louise Mensch wasn’t impressed either:


  13. Appearances being important and being deceptive has been part of the baggage of points since Roman times…I don’t suppose Elizabeth I or any of the Tudors wondered around their private apartments decked out like ships in sail…but there were occasions when it was what was expected and they did it…those who didn’t look the part often ended on the wrong side of History…Henry VI comes to mind…and Charles I is never though of as a small man…we all think of him in Van Dyke’s image of the king on his horse.

    Of course then there were those like Cromwell who wanted to be painted warts and all…although he later changed his mind and was painted without warts for his state portrait as Lord Protector. It seems you can’t even trust a Puritan revolutionary not to be effected by the shallow requirements of appearance….

    Mrs T survived hats and all sorts of sartorial peculiarities but it was her voice that MATTERED…she changed the way she spoke…it can be done…listen to recordings of the royal family….

    Ed’s voice matters. If he wishes to be hear he needs to hear this good advice. If it’s beneath him then like poor Henry VI it won’t matter how good your are or what a saint you are or how right you are…you’ll be judged by what people hear…shallow but true…our senses shape our perceptions of the world for good or ill…common sense really…..

  14. Humphrey’s was quoting a personal conversation with Robin Cook… to make a point about appearances but the anecdote rambled on too long and he ended sounding as if he was asking EM if he was too ugly….

    The dreaded rambling questions indulged in by Today presenters leads to all sorts of follies…Humphreys actually should merely have apologised and asked a better question…….but that might mean admitting you’re less than perfect…hard one eh?.

  15. Sorry for typos….in a rush to the hospital…

  16. @John Murphy

    “The dreaded rambling questions indulged in by Today presenters….”

    But Humphreys is in a class of his own compared to the rest, some of whom aren’t too bad. Humphreys’ idea of an interview is one where he is free to hold forth with his opinions at length, yet talk over and interrupt his “interviewees” within a few words should they show the slightest sign of disagreeing with the premise of his “question”.

    I am honestly surprised that Miliband saw it necessary to be interviewed by Humphreys. At least he now has the perfect excuse for never repeating the experience.

  17. I think EM would have greater personal difficulties in changing his speech than Margaret Thatcher had. The reason is that Ed’s voice is badly affected by his nasal-ness, whereas Mrs T just had to make hers less elocuted in the brittle 40s manner she had learned it, by making her use her voice in a more sultry, silky manner. Ed cannot change his ENT physical construction. This should all be irrelevant – but in this sound-bite age sadly is not! I personally warm to EM although I do not entirely share his politics. However, his slightly too high pitched. earnest, nasal voice, coupled with his mildly nerdy facial expressions will probably damage the Labour vote – utterly stupid, but that is the shallow world we live in – unfortunately.

  18. [email protected], a non Scottish thread. How boring!!!


  19. Like it or not, TV is now the medium by which many (if not all) people are influenced in the way they view just about everything and especially celebs.

    I don’t think EM is ‘ugly’. And I have no problem seeing him as PM material. But I am a tad biased!

    More than year ago, my wife commented that EM looks and sounds weird.

    Much of his appearance can be addressed – hairstyle, clothes. His voice and mannerisms are far more difficult to alter.

    (Has anyone noticed DC’s peculair stiff spread findgers when he is talking? What is that? Is it deliberate body language? Or is it just weird?)

    The problem for team EM is whether to accentuate or minimise his geekiness (or parts of it).

    I suggest that over time people will get over the geekiness. Far more important is EM’s ‘leadership’. He needs to step up his performance this year – be more visible and vocal in attacking the government and DC and proposing alternative policies.He should celebrate and accentuate aspects of his geekiness – people love humility and openness and self-deprecation.

    Having said all that, whoever was voted in to lead Lab after the 2010 GE would have had a huge problem on hands irrespective of their beauty.

  20. @Mike N

    “Has anyone noticed DC’s peculair stiff spread findgers when he is talking? What is that? Is it deliberate body language? Or is it just weird?”

    Interesting, my brother and his friends do this too…..you mentioning it has made me think…..my younger brother and his friends went to Oxford (I didn’t and don’t spread my fingers!)

    Thinking back they seem to do it when they are trying to be open and frank about something……….is it perhaps unconscious learned or copied behaviour anongst a cohort from the same university?

  21. I agree it is important to probe these things. I’m still reeling from the link between alcohol and voting intention in Sunday’s YG survey. Such a strong correlation! What does it mean?

    Could YG ask the panel how long their front garden path is? I’m convinced there’s a large correlation there too.

  22. In considering how offensive this terminology really is, imagine that a female party leader was asked a similar question.

    “Margaret Beckett, are you too ugly to be elected Prime Minister?”

    Insofar as I have an opinion, I don’t think it’s really EM’s face that holds him back. He just has an overall package of features (face, voice, hair, clothes, presentation, mannerisms) that people associate with characters from “Big Bang Theory” or “The IT Crowd”.

    I don’t think there is any way for him to truly change that impression. I think he just has to make it work for him as best he can. People these days are perfectly capable of warming to the “geek” persona, and often associate it with competence – at least in certain fields.


    @”Colin – the problem, of course, is that we only have three main party leaders and people know who they are so it is difficult to isolate variables.

    You are clearly the expert on this-but I am surprised that Pollsters cannot devise some question to identify the key elements of a perception which is held by 70% of respondents for EM.-and presumably by a small minority in respect of DC (?)

  24. I thought it was pretty much well established territory that people will make a judgement on things like likeability, the common touch (the old “would I want to have a beer with this person” question), and actual physical attractiveness.

    John Humphrey’s question was using the Robin Cook quote “I’d never get elected PM, I’m too ugly” as a way of getting into the whole issue of public perceptions.

    The most interesting thing was the way EM responded – he basically said, with indignation (and a bit of a laugh) “so you are calling me ugly now are you.” That in itself demonstrates why EM struggles to be attractive to voters – he could have easily ignored the premise of the question, told Humphreys off for belittling important issues with style over substance, or tell Humphreys he also had “a great face for radio!”

    But he got bogged down, taking umbridge at the question thus making the question and the issue of his attractiveness (or otherwise) the story.

  25. Maybe ed isn’t ugly enough, I mean he ain’t a classic hunk but he’s not a mongrel dog either. But he does remind me of a student, you can see he’s not 20 anymore but you can kind of imagine that it isn’t so long since he left uni. Perhaps a few more wrinkles and if he grew his hair a bit and he has to do something with that silly grey spot which is so noticeable at pm’s questions, I think it the camera angle

    But most of all its his voice.

  26. Doesn’t this just sum up life reality. The issue of appearance applies to many walks of life. Being a politician is no different. Look at the way the teacher Mr Jefferies was treated as a suspect by the media in the Jo Yates case. Just because he looked a bit odd, with an out of control comb over, they printed front page headlines about his character which were totally false. As a result he won compensation.

    I am afraid that we live in a deeply cynical world, where people judge others by appearance, body language and the way they speak, as if they were all qualified psycho analysts. I suppose that this has always been the case, but I think it has got worse for many reasons. I am pretty sure most voters when the look at a politician will first of all look at what they are wearing and make a judgement about that. They may then listen to them and make a judgement about the way they spoke, rather than what they said.

    So to summarise, if you don’t look the part as a senior politician/PM in waiting and you don’t speak in a way that comes across to most voters, they are not likely to take you seriously. As chouenlai says above, it not whether they are good looking physically, it is more about whether they look and sound like a serious candidate for the job.

  27. Richard

    @”But most of all its his voice.”

    I agree that is part of it-but I think it’s a lot more complex than that.-other things too.

    Fascinating-& pretty tough for him if he doesn’t know what they are and couldn’t change them anyway.

  28. While we are talking about looks, DC, GO and NC look worse and worse every time I see them. It’s like the picture of dorian grey in reverse.

  29. Serwotka just waded into EM on BBC tv.

    The Brothers are not happy bunnies-& I don’t think it has anything to do with Ed’s appearance .

    Tough times when the voters think you don’t look Prime Ministerial, and your paymasters think you aren’t towing the line.

  30. @MikeN – “peculair stiff spread findgers”

    It could be a variant on the Mesmeric pass. Possibly it boosts his confidence that he can “fix” his interlocuters in their place. Stiff fingers also tie in with the keyed-up bladder technique.

    On Newsnight when Chris Grayling was up against our our own Sue Marsh, he got carried away trying to convince Emily Matlis with his energetic arm movements.

    He looked to me like host who had completely lost it, shaking a tray in a guest’s face… “look at these lovely cookies I have baked – why won’t you take one!?!”

    This impression was completed when he made a sudden dismissive gesture towards Sue… as if he was throwing one of the cookies at her feet.

  31. Tony Dean

    I’m guessing your brother and his friends don’t wear nail varnish?

    It would be interesting to know if DC’s stiff spread fingers are an affectation or natural. I guess the former.

  32. Colin & Choenlai, I agree fully with your comments. To ask if someone is ugly or not is a crass question & irrelevant. After all, What is ugly? One persons ugly, is someone else’s beauty.

    The relevant question should be to do with stature & whether they look like a PM in waiting. Ed, as a chap, isn’t that bad looking, some may say quite handsome. However I cannot ever imagine him as PM. He has no ‘presence’ – he still looks like head boy, not so long out of short trousers and he does have an unfortunate nasal sound to his speech. He is also very short on any kind of experience. These factors are what put people off. To be PM, CEO or someone in authority, you have to have gravitas.
    Luckily for him & the Tories I don’t see anyone who is better. The one person on the Labour benches who does come across well is Jack Dromey. He looks & sounds important but is too left wing to get far.

  33. Billy Bob
    “Stiff fingers also tie in with the keyed-up bladder technique.”

    Oh no, that image will haunt me for the rest of the day!

  34. There was a classic vox pop just before the 2000 US election. Some redneck was asked which candidate he preferred. He said, “Weyll, Gore is saying all the right things about the economy, but Dubya looks like a guy you could have a beer with, so he’s got ma vote.”

    And then of course, we had the Nick-surge after the first Leaders’ Debate, when even the hardiest LD would be hard pressed to point to anything game changing that he said in that hour.

    Maybe we get the politicians that our age deserves? In an age obsessed with appearance and today’s headlines, maybe we deserve politicians who have perfected the smile, the matey ad lib, the firm but compassionate, “Look…” beginning to every sentence and the stiff forearm quasi-karate chop emphasis to every line in a speech.

  35. In which case, thank God that we’re not in need of a pug-ugly, slurring, drunken, abusive old grump as PM these days. Churchill would be laughed out of the TV studio.

  36. I’m suddently reminded of that song/story about the ugly duckling and the emergence of a beautiful swan.

    It’s time for EM’s transformation…

  37. Richard in Norway
    [email protected], a non Scottish thread. How boring!!!

    Totaly agree with you, I mean who wants to talk about ugly bas#ards when the SNP are ridding high in the opinion polls and independence referendums coming oot of our ears!! ;)


    @”One persons ugly, is someone else’s beauty.”

    Exactly-and an accident of birth, which they can do nothing about.

    I shouldn’t matter-I happen to believe that it doesn’t.

    It’s just the Press & Pollsters using a lazy shorthand , to probe a complex matter.

  39. In my opinion, for Labour, EM is a poor choice.

    A possible PM “must” have either visual charisma OR be a political heavyweight. Ideally – to win well – they should have both attributes.

    EM lacks both.

    He has the look and feel of an opposition leader destined to lose. Much as Hague, IDS and Howard.

  40. @ Leftylampton

    “And then of course, we had the Nick-surge after the first Leaders’ Debate, when even the hardiest LD would be hard pressed to point to anything game changing that he said in that hour.”

    The game changer was the fact that he presented what looked like an alternative to the slanging match between the two main parties that most people were thoroughly fed up with.

    It was like going to a supermarket and instead of finding the same two brands of yoghurt you had got fed up with and thought were a bit “ho hum” and had had recent problems with contamination scandals (expenses), there was a new one in fresh new packaging. So they thought they would give it a try.

    Unfortunately, when they got it home they found that under FPTP, what they thought was a full pot of yoghurt had unexpectedly been reduced to a third of its proper size by our voting system.

    Anyway, it is not Ed’s looks (my partner thinks he’s quite nice looking), it is his message. It simply doesn’t ring true. It isn’t consistent. That is what the public have picked up on. Saying there should be cuts and yet opposing every single one is just not credible.

  41. As Oscar Wilde said

    “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.
    What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.”

  42. @ Leftylampton

    Also I would add that simply the act of giving equal and neutral media coverage (rather than ignoring the LDs, dismissing them or mentioning them as also rans) was entirely and utterly new.

    In that sense, the medium was far more important than the message.

  43. Unlike Anthony Wells, I heard Humphrys’ interview with EdM on R4 and was absolutely gobsmacked. Something very, very few people have picked up on is that Humphrys was channelling classic anti-semitism, the stereotype of the ugly Jew. My work on ethnic conflict and divided societies perhaps makes me sensitive to this, but there is a definite code being used when EdM is being disparaged. ‘North London intellectual’ is also code for Jewish, btw. In a similar vein, I was surprised and saddened that the media did not pick up the same code in Widdecombe’s ‘something of the night’ re. Michael Howard in 2005. To my ears – and many others – it was straight-up anti-semitism. Not everyone gets it – but it is a kind of dog-whistle that is aimed at people in the know, and it serves to strengthen an image.

    So, in the spirit of what I have said above, asking if EdM is ‘too ugly’ to be PM is a coded question that strongly suggests an inglorious motivation. I don’t think a reputable polling organisation should be asking it.

    Good job no-one asked that question of that short, fat, bald bloke who was PM in WWII.

  44. “even if subconsciously we are biased towards the taller candidate, or the one with the nicest hair” [AW]

    The “ugly” question is a poor one, partly as it is offensive, partly as it is not even true. There will be those who think Ed is attractive and vice-versa, but he is not someone that objectively strikes you as ugly.
    I’m not sure where the research was carried out, or if it has been refreshed recently, but I remember reading that the antennae of the public were much more tuned to height and hair (on head and face) with the recieved wisdom that if you were short, bald and had a beard, then you might as well not bother running for high office.

    Perhaps that was what Robin Cook meant (although he was no looker either :-) )

  45. I do somewhat suspect that parts of the press are… very selective with the photos they choose for EM. I mean, he’s hardly Quasimodo, but often certain photos from certain companies owned by certain Australians do have a habit of publishing the photo taken from angles that make him look awful.

  46. @Anthony Wells

    If I read your above correctly, you are currently on leave (and have been for the past week?). So I assume you’re currently posting these articles in your spare time and unpaid. So thank you for that: we appreciate the effort it takes you.

    Reagrds, Martyn

  47. Tark

    That’s very interesting.

    “…aimed at people in the know”

    Who are they? And what is the covert message?

  48. Jay,

    That may be true, but you’d expect his own side to be more supportive in their photo selection………..perhaps he’s just not all that photogenic………..!


  49. The union backlash is an opportunity is for Ed and he must grab it with both hands…Even Dan Hodges,number one Milliband critic agrees that the Unions can`t win this fight…Because ordinary people who aren`t die-hard lefties will stop voting for Labour…Ed needs to win this fight and knock Mcluskey out because otherwise Labour will be unelectable….Milliband could use strong language against Mcluskey and win a point or two in the `takes tough decisions` column,but from this morning`s BBC interview Ed seems to be going for peace.

    I don`t think Ed is ugly,he is infact good looking and I don`t think that is going to be the reason he loses…From this morning`s interview,I also see that he is avoiding speaking in a deliberate,slow manner which gives him the `indecisive` tag…The new chief of staff has started well and attempting to make changes to the problems as ordinary people see them

    I do somewhat suspect that parts of the press are… very selective with the photos they choose for EM.
    There`s no doubt News International want him out…Trevor Kavanagh has already called him a `dead duck` on Daily Politics…If Ed wins,he might come for them

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