John Major’s late popularity shows that it’s better to be underrated than overrated

Just as guilt inspires the upward reassessment of Major’s reputation, so embarrassment drives the downward revision of Blair’s – the embarrassment of the sucker.

Reputational overshoot cuts both ways. Giddily inflated reputations are revised downwards with vengeful enthusiasm; public lives shredded by contemporary judgments benefit from history’s guilty reassessment. It is riskier to be overrated than underrated just ask John Major and Tony Blair.

Last month Major delighted the media with a bravura performance at a press lunch in parliament. Did he regret describing Eurosceptic ministers as bastards? “It was absolutely unforgivable. My only excuse is that it was true.” He had an elegant slap for Norman Tebbit: “There’s no point in telling people to get on their bike if there’s nowhere to live when they get there.” And for the Tory right in general – “All the core vote delivers is the wooden spoon.” The substance of his speech, proposing a profits tax on energy firms, was scarcely the point. The lunch was the culmination of the restoration of his reputation.

In truth, Major’s measured and affable public appearances since leaving office are a small part of this story; it probably would have happened anyway. Major could have turned up last month and read out the cricket scores (which he doubtless had at his fingertips) and the gallery would have rushed to praise him. For the cause of the current boom in his standing is not the present but the past. Guilt – surely that is what many pundits (and voters) feel about their treatment of Major when he was prime minister.

He was a victim of the way the market for news and opinion operates. Once a public figure is judged to be inept, the easiest way for a journalist to carve out a space in his professional marketplace is to exaggerate that negative assessment. No one wants to read about “an effectual prime minister” when another piece describes him as “disastrous” and another still as “the worst in living memory”. Before long the term “hapless” is attached to everything he does, a magnet that attracts any scrap of floating negative gossip. Criticism, like praise, is self-radicalising.

The morning after losing the 1997 election, on 2 May, Major visited the Oval cricket ground to watch a county match. I was playing. Despite his humiliation at the polls, he visited both dressing rooms, chatting courteously with all of us. He looked shattered but also relieved, even oddly assured.

At that exact moment, Tony Blair was en route to Buckingham Palace amid crazed enthusiasm. This was a following breeze that could propel almost anyone. Perhaps that was the problem. Consider Blair’s position today. Just as every voguish cliché was once greeted with credulous enthusiasm, even the mention of Blair’s name inspired boos and hisses at the 2011 Labour party conference. His lucrative speech deals are mocked, the propriety of his business consultancies questioned. Blair’s few remaining allies are now mostly on the interventionist right, which is ironic, given that Blair dedicated a whole conference speech in his heyday to the idea that conservatism was inherently and irredeemably immoral.

Once again, whatever the rights and wrongs of Blair’s choices since leaving office, the real animus is deeper-seated. How did we fall for it? How did we allow ourselves to be duped, charmed and flattered? Just as guilt inspires the upward reassessment of Major’s reputation, so embarrassment drives the downward revision of Blair’s – the embarrassment of the sucker. Maybe the present revision has already gone far enough and there will soon come a time when even those who never fell for Blair will feel compelled to say, “Hang on, surely even Blair doesn’t quite deserve this treatment?”

The wider point, however, is that any public figure should guard against being too highly regarded. For once, humility and shrewd strategy are aligned: try to keep your reputation just below where it might ascend if left unchecked.

Andrew Strauss, the former England cricket captain, scored ten Test hundreds in his first 30 matches, a strike rate that placed him among the game’s highest class. Yet at his peak in 2005, I remember Strauss telling me that the praise being heaped on him was “ridiculous”. By carefully undercutting the initial reputational overshoot, he avoided the subsequent criticism that he “underachieved” as a Test batsman when his stellar early form inevitably levelled off.

The same balanced self-awareness explains why the Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who wrote acclaimed books on Afghanistan and Iraq, is now spending much of his time talking about deeply unglamorous issues such as rural broadband. Realising he was singled out as a “rising star” as soon as he entered the House – a highly risky label – he is now trying to avoid an overexcitable rise and fall. The less I hear Stewart quoted unnecessarily, the more seriously I rate his long-term prospects.

Bob Dylan was called a prophet, a revolutionary, a hero to the oppressed and the voice of generation. His response? “I’m just a song and dance man.” Graham Greene drew a distinction between his fully fledged novels and mere “entertainments”, which he did not want to be judged by literary standards. In downgrading them himself, Greene removed the opportunity for critics to do so.

You will have spotted the central difference between politicians and other public figures. Where athletes and entertainers achieve popularity by default, as a by-product of being good at something else, popularity is hard-wired into the structure of professional politics.

How, then, can a politician avoid reputational overshoot while remaining good at his job? Perhaps the answer is to distinguish between two kinds of popularity: the necessary and the self-indulgent. A politician who wants to be rated over the long term should seek just enough popularity to provide power and a mandate – but no more than that.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune “(Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Guilt inspires the upward reassessment of Major's reputation. Image: Getty

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change