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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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses