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

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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A L Kennedy Q&A: “Of course we’re all doomed"

The novelist talks wise politicians, time travel and Captain Haddock. 

What’s your earliest memory?
I’m not sure my early memories are that real. I recall pulling a doorknob off in the hallway in an attempt to leave home, because I was walking away from salad and was never going back . . . Salad back then was limited and scary.

Who was your childhood hero?
I was fond of Captain Haddock. And impressed by Henry Dunant. My heroes were mainly in books. My adult heroes would be numerous. The Lakota (and other) folks resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline are amazing. Bill Nighy is quietly doing amazingnesses on behalf of others. The whole of Médecins sans Frontières – they’re extraordinary. Lots of people do amazing things but don’t get mentioned. We are constantly given the impression by politicians and the media that everyone else is a bastard. It’s not true.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
I don’t think that’s ever happened. I’m always happy to read a wonderful book. But I guess I have envied writers who have been to amazing places or lived in amazing times and been useful. Rebecca West, then, Chekhov, Robert Louis Stevenson.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Nelson Mandela was very wise about a number of things. Václav Havel and Gandhi also. In the present, the mayor of Düsseldorf is pretty impressive. So is Nicola Sturgeon. They’re people you can stand to be in the same room with – which is unusual in politics.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
Anything I enjoy knowing would get spoiled by having to sit and spit out chips of it. Plus: my memory is on temporary leave of absence while I have the menopause.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
I’d like to have visited Shakespeare’s London – awful to live there. The UK in 1946-50 would fascinate me. And I’d like to have been in the US for the Sixties.

What’s your theme tune?
Depends. Bits of Dylan, lots of Elvis Costello, “Bread and Roses”, some First World War songs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was told that if I held on and passed my forties, life would be infinitely more fun. I did and it is.

What’s currently bugging you?
Don’t get me started. Let’s boil it all down to ambient cruelty and stupidity. We seem intent on becoming extinct. And if we go on as we are – we kind of should.

What single thing would make your life better?
I can’t tell you. But it would.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
No idea. I quite liked bits of acting – that’s tough, though. I like painting, in the sense of decorating. I wouldn’t mind being a painter.

When were you happiest?
I would imagine it’s all the times when I’ve forgotten about being me entirely and been completely involved in something other – nature, writing, giving a shit about someone else . . .

Are we all doomed?
Yes, of course. We always are. We all die. That’s why we ought to be kind. 

A L Kennedy’s “Serious Sweet” is newly published in paperback by Vintage. Her children’s book “Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure” is published by Walker Books

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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