Archived: It’s the Personality, Stupid!

Originally published as a FB Note, on 20 May 2008 at 22:19

So, the local elections have come and gone, Labour has taken a proverbial kicking and Our Glorious Leader, Mr. Brown, has faced calls from all quarters about his suitability for the role and, once again, even his mandate from the electorate. Instead of providing yet another political analysis, I respectfully submit my own apolitical assessment, based on my slightly greater understanding of public relations.

I make this submission contrary to political folklore, which since Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 Presidential election campaign has enshrined the maxim “It’s the economy, stupid”, a phrase that has since become part of the parlance for voters as much as psephologists.

Rewind, if you will a year, almost to the day. On May 11th, 2007, Gordon Brown announced his candidature for the leadrerhip of the party/country in the wake of Tony Blair‘s impending resignation of the posts. In his speech that day, he appeared to make a pledge to reject his predecessor’s well-known use of ‘spin’ by saying “I have never believed presentation should be a substitute for policy”. It was meant to act as a beacon for all those who criticised Mr. Blair’s “presidential” style of politics, where it was often alleged that Parliament and even the Cabinet were by-passed and the unelected Alastair Campbell, the spin-doctor in chief, wielded more power than senior Ministers. It may seem unusual to say so about politicians these days, but you could even believe that it was a stance that even he agreed with. Britain under Brown was, we were assured, to return to the good old days of Parliamentary scrutiny and collective responsibility.While this was all very worthy and even morally courageous, it did overlook one slight flaw – that in politics, just as in business, ultimately, it’s the number of punters that matter. Unfortunately, it would appear – and any focus group would probably confirm this – that there are fewer voters in the country today who are concerned by such dusty concepts as parliamentary process than there are those who care merely about backing the person they want to win. What’s more, all this was true before (New) Labour’s election victory in 1997, which is precisely why the old party needed the ‘New’ adjective back then. It’s hard therefore to escape the conclusion that Tony Blair was perhaps not the pathological egomaniac he was portrayed to be, but that he chose to act like a president because deep down, he knew that’s what the nation really wanted. To paraphrase a line from King Lear, perhaps it was Blair who was “more spinn’d against than spinning”.

While the ‘traditional’ Labour voter might have despaired at the vulgarities of their party back then, the truth is that eleven years on, the same gravitation to gratification is even more profoundly in evidence and seems to permeate every aspect of life. You could speculate that this is due to the increasing Americanisation of our culture or you could blame poorer education standards over-simplifying the question we are asked at each election. The best answer I’ve heard is that a sign of an unthreatened nation is one in which politics plays a less central role – and conversely, where security and even survival is in doubt, the masses are motivated to take the question of their governance more seriously.

So, viewed in the context of the history of British politics, that watershed election of 1997 still seems like a recent development, even after eleven years. In human terms, it’s about a seventh of a lifetime but in the context of social changes since then, it’s almost an eternity.

Since 1997, we’ve seen the rise of the ‘Big Brother’-culture, the spawning of an endless line of so-called ‘reality’ shows in which viewers are invited to ‘call this number’ to choose/evict the contestant they like most/least. By the time of the next General Election in possibly 2009 or more probably 2010, when we would have to have one, there could be as many as 8.3 million voters* in the elctorate aged between 18 and 30, and therefore not old enough to have participated in any General Election before that of 1997.

* based on demography distribution at the 2001 census.

in 2005, around 27.1 million votes were cast, at a turnout of (if memory serves) 59%. This would mean that potentially 18.7% of the electorate have only ever had voting experience of post-1997 electioneering.

Whatever your views on the extent of the increasing ‘celebrity culture’ we have or the youth market that is at its forefront, any would-be or incumbent Prime Minister should ignore either at their peril. Is that a good thing? Well, that’s an entirely different question…

Anyway, enter our hero, Gordon Brown. Bereft of oratory skills, lacking anything approaching charisma or media appeal and apparently eschewing the dark art of ‘spin’. It’s a heady mix for our celebrity age. It’s tempting to compare him with politicians from a bygone age such as Harold MacMillan who appeared equally uncomfortable in front of the camera. In truth, this would be an immense disservice to MacMillan, who for all his obvious discomfort, was arguably the first Prime Minister to recognise the importance of the new medium when it may have been easier for him to have avoided its exacting gaze. Macmillan was a television pioneer because of the age and despite his own limitations, whereas Brown abhors it despite the age and, one has to conclude, because of his limitations.

All of this “what I’m concentrating on” stuff with which Brown fills his rhetoric may be laudable and may even get him elected again, but for that to happen the impact of his actions will have to outstrip the presentation skills of the real heir to Blair’s media-friendly mantle, a certain David Cameron…