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The Unpopularity Contest For Britain's Next Prime Minister


By this time tomorrow, British voters will be done casting their ballots in national elections. Two men are fighting neck-and-neck to be prime minister. The incumbent David Cameron leads the Conservative Party. His challenger, Ed Miliband, leads the Labour Party. Neither of them has been what you would call a dream candidate. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on this matchup of two party leaders who don't fit the usual mold.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at The Masons Arms pub in central London. Andy Emptage won't say which party he's voting for, but he's happy to say what he thinks of the party leaders, Ed Miliband and David Cameron.

ANDY EMPTAGE: I find Mr. Miliband a bit weird. And Mr. Cameron, I suppose, is a bit weird as well (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Some elections are popularity contests. This one is closer to an unpopularity contest. The campaigning is negative, and the candidates are not exactly compelling. Susie Boniface is a journalist who has written about British politics for 20 years under the pseudonym Fleet Street Fox. I asked her to give a rough personality sketch of these two men.

SUSIE BONIFACE: I wish I could give you a personality sketch. It's a little bit difficult, and that's kind of the problem that we have in the whole general election campaign. There's not an awful lot of personality in.

SHAPIRO: Both Ed Miliband and David Cameraon are career politicians. They both went to top private schools, and Boniface says they both have challenges relating to common people.

BONIFACE: Cameron has some personality issues that not everybody thinks he knows what it's like to struggle.

SHAPIRO: Cameron played into that self-centered stereotype last week when he misspoke at a campaign stop.


PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: This is a real career defining - country defining election that we face.

SHAPIRO: While Cameron seems a bit glossy and stiff, his challenger, Miliband, is known for being generally awkward, says Boniface.

BONIFACE: If you imagine the kid in the class that got picked on for being a weirdo, that's Ed Miliband.

SHAPIRO: Miliband tries to own that persona on the campaign trail.


ED MILIBAND: You can find people who are more square jawed, more chiseled, who look less like Wallace.

SHAPIRO: That's a reference to "Wallace And Gromit," the claymation series with a protagonist who might bear a passing resemblance to Miliband.


PETER SALLIS: (As Wallace) Cracking toast, Gromit.

SHAPIRO: Of course these men do have fans. A 17-year-old girl briefly became Internet famous for starting the Twitter hashtag Milifandom. She created an online video called "Milibae: The Movie."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They see you as a North London geek.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Projecting him as this cool guy which started out funny because it seems so untrue but now has strangely become true as the irony slips away.

MILIBAND: Hell yes, I'm tough enough.

SHAPIRO: And Prime Minister Cameron has a cheering squad, too. The first viral video of this campaign showed Cameron taking down a political rival in the House of Commons.


CAMERON: You don't need it to be Christmas to know when you're sitting next to a turkey.

SHAPIRO: But one reason those videos made news is that they are so different from the general perception of each man. In the U.S., awkwardness and un-relatability can be a political death sentence. Just look at Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign. But the U.K. is different, says Tim Bale. He chairs the politics department at London's Queen Mary University.

TIM BALE: We do live in a parliamentary system rather than a presidential system, and people, generally speaking, in the U.K. vote for parties rather than for their party leaders. Now, obviously party leaders make a little bit of different because they're the salesman for the brand, but having said that, it's perfectly possible, and we've seen it in British political history before, for party leaders who are less popular than the other guy to win.

SHAPIRO: So Ed Miliband and David Cameron can take hope. Voters may view them as awkward, un-relatable, even a bit weird, but one of them will run the United Kingdom anyway. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.