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The Milibandwagon: Ed Joins the Personality Contest.

31/07/2014 15:44 BST | Updated 30/09/2014 10:59 BST

In a trio of uninspiring party leaders Ed Miliband holds a dubious honour. To the voting public he appears the least 'prime ministerial'. Having neglected to smoke cigars and throw up sporadic V for victory signs, he now finds himself languishing in the personality ratings.

In our modern democracy, a sort of 'Take Me Out' with some policy thrown in, Miliband's looks and manner are the millstone around his neck. But Ed is a shrewd politician. Launching Labour's 'summer offensive' in a speech last week he acknowledged his image problem and took full ownership of it.

The move was cunning in a number of ways. Primarily it gives Ed and Labour control of the discourse. The message is clear; 'want to make jokes about my appearance? Go ahead, I'll stick to the serious stuff.' Equally, as Boris Johnson amply demonstrates, mastery of your own weaknesses can be just as powerful as control of your strengths. Self-deprecation can transform a character flaw into a comforting, human foible overnight.

Ed was also on the money with his critique of image-lead politics. The cost of New Labour's propulsion to power is, in part, an over reliance on Prime Ministerial acting. Presentation was crucial to the New Labour project and the symptoms of that fixation are evident in today's leaders, caught between criticising Blair's presidential style and simultaneously echoing it.

But beneath the wit and the soundbite there was trickery at the heart of Miliband's speech. This was billed as the launch of Labour's summer offensive, a starter's pistol in the race for Britain's hearts and minds. As such we would expect the speech to lay out a vision, to further articulate the policies which are now emerging. And yet for all the talk of being a policy, rather than a photo, focussed leader, for all the denunciations of Cameron and his husky hugging tendencies, the body of this speech was about Ed.

This was in essence a personality speech. An act of self-promotion and canny repositioning masquerading as a manifesto. There were lofty allusions to principles, and the routine bipolarising of the parties on the economy, inequality and the NHS, but any talk of policy or principle was incidental. This was not a speech about empathy, integrity and the ability to listen, it was a speech about the leader of the opposition as a conduit for those qualities.

Ed self-consciously set out to lambast the culture of narcissism and thespian politicking mastered by Blair and emulated by Cameron. In his attempt he spoke almost exclusively about himself as a man and as a leader. Make no mistake, this was not a speech about duplicity or a cynical, image lead leadership style. No, it was a speech engineered to boost Miliband's personal ratings.

There are powerful statements in there, but Ed and David Axelrod, his new Senior Strategic Advisor from across the pond, would have anticipated the take away message from this one. Not this piece of insight - "People's sense of the artificiality, the triviality, the superficiality of politics is more highly tuned than ever" - or this - "the key thing about the journey we have been on as a party is that we have built our policy on serious thinking about how we change our economy." Instead, in living rooms across the UK, families will remember the Leader of the opposition likening himself to a plasticine cheese enthusiast.

Ed criticises the game while playing by its rules. Little wonder the public have tired of artifice at the top of British politics.