In the world of robotics and computer animation, there is a place called the Uncanny Valley. It’s inhabited by things that look very like, but not exactly like real people. Like Madame Tussauds, in essence, but with fewer French schoolchildren shrieking at an oversized candle which looks only dimly like Prince William.
Our brains are programmed to feel positive emotions when things that don’t look like people behave in a seemingly human way. You only need to watch Disney’s Wall-E to see the truth in this: give us a battered old-fashioned metal robot, and we are charmed. But make a robot more humanoid, and suddenly it gives us the wig. Not at all human is adorable. Nearly human but not quite provokes revulsion and fear.
And that is what someone needs to explain to Ed Miliband, before the entire nation decides he is part of The Borg, and calls in Captain Picard to sort him out. If you didn’t catch the BBC’s footage of Miliband explaining his position on Thursday’s strikes, you missed a deeply eerie experience.
So unnerved was he at the prospect of saying the wrong thing that he said the exact same thing, using the exact same words, five times. ‘These strikes are wrong,’ was his catchphrase, repeated four times in less than 2 and a half minutes. The government has acted in a ‘reckless and provocative manner’, repeated five times. They need to ‘put aside the rhetoric,’ five times, and ‘get round the negotiating table’ five more times. He resembles nothing more than a large, dull toy with a tiny speaker inside. Pull a string in his back and he probably shouts, ‘There’s a snake in my boot.’
I know there is a fear among politicians that they may say the wrong thing. I understand that this is caused by 24-hour rolling news, which means that a non-story can easily become a story for hours or days on end. Mis-speak (as we have taken to calling anything in the spectrum of human speech from a blazing lie at one end to a revelation of crushing ignorance of, say, the state pension at the other), and the media fall upon you like ravening hyenas on a wildebeest with a poorly foot.
So Miliband’s team have obviously decided not to fall into the mis-speaking trap. But in so doing, they fallen into the different – but equally fatal – trap, of presenting their leader as a mindless droid. It’s not because he has a boring voice, it’s because he seems to have a vocabulary of about 200 words. Can it really be the case that he doesn’t trust himself to make his point more than once using different adjectives? Does the government have to be reckless and provocative every time? Wouldn’t the soundbite work just as well if he called them ‘unthinking and inflammatory’, or ‘foolhardy and aggressive’?
And if he insisted on using identical phrases over and over again, couldn’t he at least be trusted to change the order? I’m not suggesting he channels his inner Yoda (wrong these strikes are), but it wouldn’t have killed him to demand that unions and ministers get round the table and negotiate one time out of the five that he said they should get round the negotiating table.
And if even an order-change was non-negotiable, then he could at least have tried a change in tone, or pace. Obviously, it’s tricky to pick the tone when you want to convey that you don’t approve of either strikers or government. But a sympathetic tone would have turned, ‘These strikes are wrong’ into a statement that he understood the strikers’ dilemma. Or say it a bit faster and you focus the viewers’ attention on the next sentence, which is surely your main beef: the government’s failure to negotiate successfully.
Ed Miliband needs to learn to speak to a camera the way he presumably speaks to his friends and family. Well, most of them, anyway (though Space Odyssey’s HAL was eventually destroyed by a man named Dave…). If that isn’t to happen to Ed, the Milibandroid needs a reboot.