The politics of personality: How will it affect the next election?

By Benjamin Martin 

Personality has undeniably become a massive factor in the way we vote as a nation, but with speculation of an early election, what impact will it have on our political climate?

 

This past week has been quite substantive politically, not least with the Prime Minister’s rather unprecedented and drastic Cabinet reshuffle. The reconstruction of the Government frontbench has, however, more than anything been an indicator of something which was previously rumoured: Boris has an appetite for an early general election. This is speculation which has been fuelled further by the rhetoric of the new Tory chairman. Thus, it raises the obvious question of what exactly the implications of such an event will be for our national politics.  

 

If this Parliament were to reach its natural conclusion, in keeping with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the next election should be scheduled for late 2024. Nevertheless, with the repeal of this statute already being considered by the House of Lords, it is possible that the Prime Minister would be capable of ending this term prematurely. This begs a few questions, namely: when exactly is this election going to occur, and what would be the outcome, given the current political climate?

 

To address the former, it can almost be guaranteed that there will be no election while the pandemic is still dominating headlines. It would be political suicide for any government to put their own position before the national wellbeing. However, with a considerable degree of optimism at play, there is a chance that an election may be called at any point from the latter half of next year. This would allow time for further recovery from the crisis, alongside the necessary repeal of the FTPA.

 

With these formalities out of the way, I’m now free to address the real substance and purpose of this article: where would an early election leave the UK politically? Despite the fact that polls have been significantly closer in recent months, I still believe that the Conservatives have the next election in the bag. At this point I should disclaim that I am not (currently anyways) a supporter of the Conservative Party. In fact, I recognise a greater number of flaws in every viable party than merit. But my own position aside, there is an overwhelming reason why the Tories will still be able to cling onto power in the next election, unless that factor somehow changes before such a point.

 

To put it blatantly, it boils down to personality. I have already mentioned this aspect of contemporary politics in other articles, but I wish to take this one to address it outright. Before I do, however, it should be noted that policy is obviously still important. If the Tories were to turn around tomorrow and announce, for instance, a novel oxygen tax on the air we breathe, it would be a given that their chances are doomed. But I think it’s pretty fair to assume that this isn’t going to be the case.

 

Throughout every corner of the world, politics has become more centralised around the idea and reception of a candidate’s personality and the effect that it has on the national psyche. This is evident in the United States, with Donald Trump’s election in 2016. It has also arguably been the case in Ukraine where President Zelensky won on the basis of his popularity as a fictional President on TV. Indeed, this was undoubtedly the driving force behind Boris Johnson’s considerable margin of victory in 2019. To put it into perspective, the Tories performed so successfully in the last election due to the fact that the campaign centred around Boris as an individual. His style of campaigning was what, I believe, convinced public opinion to give him a proper shot at the job.

 

To demonstrate why this is the case, let’s consider their manifesto promises in that intense winter election. Accomplishing Brexit, providing better funding and support for the NHS, increasing the number of police officers, reforming immigration and not raising taxes (oops). None of these pledges were anything out of the ordinary in a standard Tory manifesto. So consider, for a moment, if the party was under the stewardship of the likes of Theresa May, Dominic Raab or even Michael Gove (God forbid). It is difficult to imagine that it would have had the same impact electorally.

 

But what about that infamous slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’? Surely it was also significant in influencing public opinion? While it is true that it certainly struck an accord with the electorate, in reality it isn’t any more adventurous than something like ‘Strong and Stable Leadership’ which clearly did not work out for the party two years prior. Therefore, it begs the question, why did these tactics work in 2019 where they would, or rather did, previously fail?

 

Simply, it all comes down to personality. None of the aforementioned individuals can champion or boast that same level of intrigue and interest that the incumbent Prime Minister offers by the bucketload. As a result, they would have most likely witnessed a less spectacular result, even if it was not an outright failure. Indeed, Boris’ success did not amount from the content of his campaign, nor the rhetoric he employed on its merit alone. Rather, it was the fact that these resources were at his disposal, as an individual, which made them so attractive in the public eye.

 

If Boris had been leading the party in 2017, you can almost guarantee that a different result would have occurred. He is more than capable of taking the likes of that now notorious and ridiculed slogan from four years ago and spinning it in a manner which is irresistible to the general public. And it all derives from his complex and fascinating personality.

 

I’m not going to assess his performance as Prime Minister, not least because it would take too long. But prior to the 2019 General Election, it was pretty dismal. Factors which remained consistent, nevertheless, were his charisma, his ability to engage with people and his general aura of incompetence which translates more so into something from a comedy sketch than the actions of a political leader. It is this final point which I believe to be his pièce de résistance.

 

The public at large in any country, not least one which has such a strong sense of national humour as our own, do not care that much about how many police officers a candidate is going to recruit, or how much they are going to spend on refining waste disposal. It’s very easy for the politically interested to scoff at this notion, but it is a matter of fact that Joe Bloggs on the street doesn’t sit down with a cup of tea after eight hours of work and read through a forty page manifesto. In the same respect, he does not watch political broadcasts and interviews and listen to every word of pretentious, verbose rhetoric that candidates use to distinguish themselves as intellectually qualified to govern.

 

Instead, he watches the news and witnesses moments which strike an interest with him. For instance, his Prime Minister boxing, or doing pull ups in a factory or just generally fooling around a little. And when he does witness a party election broadcast, it will be something humourous, like recreating a scene from a famous film, that engages him. The likes of Raab, Gove, Javid or even Sunak could not accomplish this in the same manner Boris did. In fact, if they acted in this way, they would appear awkward and a little out of their comfort zone. Just draw a comparison between Michael Gove out for a run and Johnson going for jog and you will know exactly what I mean. And while Theresa May did undoubtedly win our hearts with her nifty moves, it was still out of pity more than respect. In summary, therefore, Boris was the right man for the job and the results are pretty axiomatic.

 

To get back to the original point, personality has dominated elections in this country for the past 40 years. Thatcher was a character, Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock were not. Major was bland and unexciting, but Blair came across as a youthful, energetic and as an amicable guy. Brown was as dull as a citizens’ advice bureau, whereas Cameron exhibited many similar qualities to his initial rival on the frontbench. And while Miliband also had the benefit of youth on his side, he just came across as a little bit too cringe-worthy and uncomfortable. Similarly, despite having quite a religious following amongst grassroot socialists, Corbyn’s style of address was a lot more hostile and aggressive, not to mention dreary and painful to watch, something which fortunately didn’t fare as badly against the similarly mundane May as it did the all-engaging Johnson. The trend is quite recognisable, and it is clear that the quality of a candidate’s person holds significant weight on the electorate’s mind.

 

Obviously, there are an array of other aspects to each of these elections which determined the result. Yet, somehow, I feel that the elements of the candidates themselves still were most notable. So with this fact in mind, I wish to briefly discuss the topic which I began this now quite prolonged and inconsistent article with: the prospect of the next election.

 

I have already written about Starmer’s fatal flaw previously, and it is worth reiterating. As qualified and intelligent as he might be, he is by all accounts as exciting as an electricity bill (unless your electricity bill is the highlight of your month, then just imagine the most dull thing in your life instead). Labour may have taken a slight lead in the polls recently, but it was entirely a result of the Tories falling slightly, something which has since been reversed. Starmer is arguably in an even worse position than Corbyn as he lacks that dedicated, die-hard group of loyalists who would follow him into war. He doesn’t captivate or inspire, he just exists in the odd headline here and there. Perhaps people may agree with him from time to time, but try asking one of your mates if they would envision him as PM, I doubt many will respond with much enthusiasm.

 

Likewise, the next viable candidate (if he can even be called that) would be Ed Davey. If anything, he is similarly in a weaker position than his predecessor. At least Swinson, as annoying as she could be, did at times appear to be genuine. Not to mention the fact that a young mother always seems to stimulate at least some public support. Nevertheless, this didn’t work for her in the slightest. Davey, on the other hand, is possibly even more drab than Starmer. He tries so hard to be charismatic and alluring on camera, but he just can’t hide how bland and boring he really is. No offence to the guy, much like Starmer he does seem like an approachable and nice person. Unfortunately, nice guys don’t succeed in politics, and I highly doubt that either man has any prospect of advancing their career from this point.

 

In fact, the Lib Dems in general just don’t inhabit that unique ability to campaign which is fundamentally necessary to win elections. While their recent by-election performance has given them an ego-boost, the scenes from their conference prove how hard they are trying to jeopardise their chances. Just look at how awkward they were knocking down a manifestation of the Tory blue wall. When Boris pulled an equivalent stunt, it was pretty funny. He was in a bulldozer, wearing health and safety gear and he executed it in a way that it appeared like something from a sitcom – a scene which you would genuinely laugh at. But when the Lib Dems attempted to imitate this at the weekend, it was more like the brand of comedy designed to make you cringe to the extent you find it ironically funny, hardly something that wins elections.

 

To wrap up what has become an essay more than, what I intended to be, a brief article, it is quite difficult to say how exactly the next election will play out at this point. While the Conservatives are set to win, I don’t believe they will be making any gains. To be honest, they will probably return a similar result to 2015. The Liberal Democrats, for all their inability to campaign, will probably pick up some seats in the South as the Tories continue to attempt to pivot their support around the North. Starmer will succeed in winning back some traditional Labour strongholds, but ultimately he lacks that panache which is otherwise required to sweep his party’s heartlands and beyond. The only thing which would alter this forecast is a change of leadership at the helm of the Conservatives, as there is not a single potential successor who would be able to replicate Boris’ style of leadership and electioneering. But that’s a discussion for another time.

 

Image credit: UK Prime Minister 


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