Popular politician Denis Healey with former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Photo: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
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Does everyone hate politicians - or can they be popular?

New Statesman parliamentary sketchwriter explains what politicians can do to make themselves liked.

What makes for popularity in a politician? We often hear, led by the Daily Mail, that everyone hates them. It isn’t true. But putting things more rationally and civilly, politicians do not generally attract affection. What then, wanting love, must they do?

The Blair option is one way and its great success the fair measure of a dozy electorate. Blair, with all that perma-smile charm, had something of the quality of a first-order mass-murderer. Try George Joseph Smith of the “Brides in the Baths” case, drowning for small sums a line of trusting wives – smooth and assured but not very reliable. Remember Blairmania, then consider Iraq, daily territorial death going strong 13 years after the ardent urgings of that winsome, boyish voice. It leaves Smith looking suburban. Assuming we don’t like that, how does a decent politician get liked?

First off, he doesn’t rant: a standard failing of all believers, trade union leftists, Europhobes and beaters of rostrum tables when overconvinced of something or other. What about Dennis Skinner, then – authentic proletarian, carrying class persecution like a handbag? Everyone loves Dennis, though they wouldn’t if anything depended on it. They loved Peter Lorre but he never got the girl. It’s true, he is liked – eccentric, original in a repetitive way, forever selected and re-elected . . . also looking back in his eighties at a lifetime of steadily remunerated employment in conditions of, well, luxury – the object of some social envy.

There are some things that help and you can’t do much about. Being Scottish used to do, preferably a wise Scot à la John Smith, or “paukie” (as they like to say) like Robin Cook – the best, most detailed, rational arguer in the Commons. There was a lot of dross in Scottish Labour. Yet, as has been remarked, the English have a certain deference, a slightly one-down view of the Scots, surprising, given the cantankerous racial snarling available from those benches along with the advocate’s little ironies.

The received view of Ms Sturgeon as sort of wonderful will not stand long exposure to the jarring resentments in store. The SNP, flying on a wing and a grudge, is not promising. Alex Salmond is of the class of Dewar and Smith, but a phalanx of the aggrieved and their grievances hovers.

Rant – of the earnest, quiet sort – was a problem for Ed Miliband. He couldn’t chat affably to save his life. Yet affable chat has been second nature in people rightly advanced but never desperate for the Big One: Ken Clarke, John Biffen, Donald Dewar. A much better idea for the astute politician, however politically serious, is to be interested in something else. Clarke, an example to us all, enjoys birdwatching and jazz. Denis Healey had (and has) photography, also the Healey hinterland – ancient civilisation, for starters. Healey’s (and Labour’s) nemesis, Michael Foot, had similar career equipment – old-fashioned English lit: Swift and Orwell. It didn’t get him to No 10 but it’s a useful thing, a bit of culture.

You could add William Hague. The books he’s taken to writing lately indicate a touch of awe and difference. Witness his life of the dismal Pitt the Younger – not quite fun, but proper history and way above memoirs. The faintly abnormal teenager at the conference dais, thumbs poised for the waistcoat at 16, has acquired a donnish touch. His writings do him credit but provoke no resentment. The blessing of affection for creditable eccentricity envelopes him.

A different point for seekers after likeability: don’t be nasty and don’t do irony unless you have the talent. Consider Cameron, elected but not liked, addressing the nation five times a day. Prime Minister indeed, winner of a famous victory but truly a boastful bore, endlessly talking up his goods and self like an Etonian stallholder. Also downright rude and insulting – just think of that mannerless turn taken on 10 June against poor Harriet Harman.

So what to do, then? Let’s remember the late Charles Kennedy. Care indeed but never say you care “passionately” about anything. Passion, even when sincere, is an unreal, abstract thing, best left to sopranos. Relax. Don’t try to improve the voters. Let them relax. Be easy. Be amusing. This was the Miliband problem. For somebody Jewish he is terribly low church. Evangelical Labour, like establishment Tory, is tiring. Better to look bored than bore. Try hard if you must but don’t be seen trying to try. Keep passion for the next military intervention.

Edward Pearce is a former parliamentary sketchwriter for the NS. His book “Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act” is published by Pimlico

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.