At the gym yesterday, my eye was caught by the TV on the cross-trainer next to me flashing up a caption saying that 41% of voters think Ed Miliband is weird* (23'50" in). This is sinister, and not just because of the implicit tone of repressive narcissism.
There seems to be a presumption in the presenter's voice that weirdness is a bad thing. This is questionable. I'd like politicians to be geeks in the original sense of the word - people concerned about facts rather than what others think of them. And I'd like them to be disagreeable insofar as they resist pressure from lobbyists. Lance Price is right:
The constant media analysis of who we would rather have a pint with is not just patronising but stupid. None of the people I regularly have a pint with would be any good at running the country.
Historically, several very successful politicians have been "weirdos." Attlee was described as "the dullest man in English politics", Churchill was a manic depressive who worked in bed, and Gladstone spent his spare time studying (pdf) Homer's language of colour and trying to rescue prostitutes. How weird is that?
I suspect the assumption that weirdness is undesireable reflects a combination of pseudo-democracy and cargo cult managerialism. Voters want politicians to be like themselves, and presume that being "in touch" with ordinary people is somehow sufficient to promote their interests.
There's something else that's strange here. At the same time as Ed Miliband is called weird, a public school stockbroker who wants to destroy workers' rights is regarded as a man of the people, whilst an Eton-educated friend of a criminal who has twice been sacked for dishonesty passes for a likeable buffoon.
It's obvious that this odd mythology serves the interests of the ruling class. But why do some/many voters fall for it?
The answer, I suspect, lies in the notion of (rational) inattention. Most people pay very little attention to politics, which means their impressions of politicians are formed on the basis of a few biased cues: "Nigel Farage likes a pint - he's a regular bloke"; "Boris Johnson's got funny hair - he's a laugh"; "Ed Miliband looks strange - he's weird."
Now, I don't say this to defend Miliband. He's not "weird" enough for me, and John Rentoul is right to point to a perhaps grievous flaw in his character. I do so merely to point out that our current political culture contains some largely unexamined assumptions that are biased against even very modest challenges to the establishment.
* I try to make a habit of never watching current affairs programmes on TV.