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British politicians on reality TV, rated and ranked

From the most disturbing to the “uh, it was fine, I guess”.

British politicians seem to have a bit of a reality television addiction.

This week, it was announced that both former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale and former MEP (and father of Boris) Stanley Johnson would be appearing as contestents on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here. Richard Leonard, the new leader of Scottish Labour, has said “feelings are running high” after Dugdale flew to Australia without the support of her party, but she is not going to be suspended.

If that creaking wind rushing past your ear carries with it the eerie feeling that we’ve been here before, it's because we have. Here are past disheartening political appearances on reality TV, ranked from the most disturbing to the “uh, it was fine, I guess”.

George Galloway on Celebrity Big Brother

The original horror. When you search George Galloway, the second most suggested word is “cat”. Everything about it is repulsive – the slow question “And now…. Would you like me…. To be the cat?”, the whispering, the facial expressions, the sound of fabric against the sofa, the fact that Rula Lenska touches Cat George with her hands and her own head. But worst of all are the sounds George Galloway makes with his mouth. The lapping, the licking of his lips and hands. The obscene, wet sounds of nightmares. When I watch this, I feel a strange heat rising around the glands in my neck. I suddenly am unable to swallow. As a lump grows in my throat, I find myself vaguely coughing. As though I have a hairball. It has happened. I am the cat. -31,294.

Michael Fabricant on First Dates

Utterly cringeworthy and bizarre. The kind of television that leaves you flinching and desperately gnawing on your own elbow while low groans of pain you didn’t know you could emit leave your mouth. I don’t know which bit was worse, the endless hair comments or the 1950s chat about secretaries wanting babies. -1,645. Cleanse me of this sight, sweet Lord.

Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing

One word: Creepy. I don’t need to see Ed Balls’ face between the thighs of a 27-year-old woman, I just don’t. It’s not cute. It’s not funny. And, as my colleague Anoosh writes, it is “the all-sashaying, all-sweating symbol of the monstrous clownification of politics”. Our major politicans shouldn’t be able to put on a glitter spandex suit and have all their mistakes forgiven. -949. My eyes are burning.

Lembit Opik on I’m a Celebrity

Literally who cares?! Yes, he annoyed everyone with terrible jokes and was bitten by a snake. But THIS was the year that Gillian McKeith stole the show with her phobia of absolutely everything you might find in a jungle. Or, as Lewis Boyd writes on Twitter, the year “we all as a country were able to vote and force Gillian McKeith, a 52 year old woman to do about 7 trials in a row to the point where she tried to fake fainting on live television.” Opik is remembered as he should be, as a footnote in the biography of a disgraced poo expert. -411.

Winston McKenzie on Celebrity Big Brother

He was evicted after three days for his homophobic views (calling gay adoption “child abuse”), heartily booed by the public and hated by his fellow contestants. He did not deserve the blessing of being chastised by Gemma Collins (who, when telling him off for his views, concern trolled McKenzie perfectly with the question, “Why are you not looking at me in my eyes?”) Your common or garden UKIP appearance, deeply tiring. -312.

Nadine Dorries on I’m a Celebrity…

The Conservative MP was the first to be evicted from the series – but not before she was buried alive, and ate an ostrich anus. She made far more enemies than friends during her brief stint on the show in 2012, and was suspended by her party for the appearance. It all ended in even more controversy when she refused to declare the £20,228 she made from her 12 days in the jungle. Honestly, I’m bored even typing this. -221.

Penny Mordaunt in Splash

She thinks people deserve less housing benefit and has consistently voted against increases to disability allowance, but here she is in a nice swimming costume!! Yay. -91.

Robert Kilroy Silk on I’m a Celebrity


Julia Goldsworth on The Games

I repeat: Who? Also: What?

Brian Paddick on I’m a Celebrity


Edwina Currie on I’m a Celebrity

She’s been on Hell’s Kitchen and Strictly Come Dancing, but my favourite Edwina Currie moment is here yelling Glory Hallelujah whilst a rain of bugs and slush pours down upon her naked head. Also: these people make our most important national decisions! Cool! -12.

Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing

It takes a special kind of person to sign up to weeks of intensive and very public dancing performances and then treat those performances with such fierce lack of interest. Ann Widdecome put in an astoundingly low effort week after week after week. It also takes a special kind of person to be both “pro-life” and pro-the reinstitution of the death penalty, so there we go. Regressive politicians don’t get to become cute by putting on a pair of sparkly tights, but I am both confused and vaguely impressed by her flagrant disregard for the show whilst being on it. +32.

Jeremy Corbyn on Gogglebox

By far the least embarrassing of political forays into reality TV, even if he did reveal some gaps in his knowledge of third century Roman battles. A cup of tea, a chat about eggs, and some giggling with Jessica Hynes. Not bad. +59.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia