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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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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