New Times,
New Thinking.

11 April 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 6:01am

British political communications 101: look like you’re one of us

Aka Ralph Miliband Removals.

By Dan Hodges

Yesterday I had a browse of the Sunday job sections. I was looking not just at any old position, but senior blue-chip roles. What, I asked myself, are the qualities required in a modern captain of industry, or chief executive of a major public or third-sector body?

Apparently people are in search of an “exceptional” or “inspirational” leader. Someone who is “dynamic and entrepreneurial”. A candidate of “proven innovation and creativity” with “the ability to translate ideas into action”.

Inspiration. Innovation. Dynamism. Dear God. No wonder the country’s teetering on the brink of another recession.

When are we going to learn? If you want to find someone to run a multibillion-pound enterprise don’t ask about entrepreneurship. Ask if they know how to beat a group of 17-year-olds at a game of pool.

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Running a public service employing thousands? It’s obvious. You need a guy who’s going to blub halfway through the second act of Aida.

Embedding your brand in a competitive international market? Then grill your candidate on whether they’ve ever flown first or business class. If they say yes, show the bum the door.

That is, after all, the basis on which we select the most senior managerial position in the land: the Prime Minister. At least it is if you judge by last week’s Labour PPB, Nick Clegg’s New Statesman interview and No 10’s spinning of David Cameron’s minibreak to Malaga.

“This bloke’s not different”

British political communications 101. Look like you’re one of us. An ordinary Joe. Or Dave or Nick or Ed.

That’s how we now know Ed Miliband had a stern teacher called Mrs Jenkins. Samantha Cameron’s birthday was celebrated in “mid-market accommodation”. Clegg doesn’t “hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It’s not my world.”

Just when and how did we manage to get ourselves locked into this bidding war of mundanity? Margaret Thatcher was so unlike one of us that Spitting Image literally portrayed her as an Alien. She’s going to get a state funeral off the back of it.

John Major tried jumping on his soapbox, but pretty quickly fell off it. Tony Blair was at his most successful when he was hobnobbing with pop stars and flying off to Elton John’s villa. It was only when he started flying cruise missiles into Baghdad that the trouble began.

In every other sphere of life, we look for exceptional people to lead our major institutions. We don’t always succeed, and the selection processes are often tainted and flawed. But it’s only in politics where we hold up a big sign that says, “This bloke’s not special or different. That’s why he’s the man for the job.”

Even on its own terms, is this an approach that works? Not if you read Suzanne Moore in the Mail on Sunday:

What is Cameron playing at? The man is worth £30m. Sam’s outfit clearly costs more than the flight . . . Sure, we got fed up of the Blair round of freebies. But we are not fools.

Well, actually, we are fools. It’s always the politicians and their crafty spin doctors who get blamed for this sort of presentation, but it simply reflects their perception of our perception.

I remember having a drink with a friend of mine who worked for the Labour Party and asking how his day had gone. “Great,” he replied, “I spent the day coming up with Tony Blair’s all-time Newcastle XI.” He was a “proper” Newcastle fan, and in the hypersensitive period before the 1997 election Blair’s office didn’t trust its man to select a team that would stand scrutiny among the diehards of the north-east.

Curiouser and curiouser

It may seem a cynical exercise. But what other response is to be expected in a world where we judge a future prime minister’s suitability for office in part by their knowledge of Jackie Milburn and Malcolm Macdonald?

Precisely what have we got to show for all these photo calls with politicos in shirtsleeves, pint in hand, watching the match with the lads? Certainly not a bridging of the gap between governors and the governed. In fact, there’s a fair argument they’ve widened it.

How did we end up with the MPs’ expenses scandal? Because politicians had an arcane system of expenses and allowances. And why did they have that system? Because the sensible thing to do – paying them a proper salary – was deemed politically unacceptable, as in increase in MPs’ basic salaries wouldn’t play well with the public.

Yet the game goes on, as our statesman attempt to leap through the ever-shrinking hoop of popular opinion. So we end with Ralph Miliband, one of the foremost sociological and political thinkers of his generation, being presented to the nation as a “removal man”.

And with David Cameron, a man who in a short space of time has experienced the death of a child, the death of his father and his appointment as Prime Minister, apologetically scuttling off to Spain for 72 hours with the nuclear launch codes crammed in his hand luggage.

Or the spectacle of the Deputy Prime Minister telling the world that his nine-year-old child has taken to asking him why people are angry with him, in the hope some of them might stop posting shit through his letter box.

There’s an old saying that people in democracies get the government they deserve. We do.

The question is, do our politicians get the electorates they deserve as well?

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