Subtracting all the obvious political rhetoric, something which always come to the fore during the multitude of media outings which precede an election or referendum is the personalities (or perhaps lack of personalities) of the political elite. It is a stick the media persistently use to beat the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne with and there are obvious caveats to that, but it really does seem to be becoming a problem in an age where politicians simply are not trusted. This has been especially noticeable in the recent flurry of TV debates in which media-trained ministers have bumbled through interviews, indirectly answering questions and failing to engage viewers as a result.
On Tuesday night David Cameron and Nigel Farage took part in a question and answer session televised on ITV. Farage, appearing first, spoke with passion and vigour, addressing the audience directly and zestfully conveying easily comprehensible facts and statistics, even using his passport as a prop. In this, the UKIP leader mastered political communication. Unlike many who partake in these events, the audience was not left frustrated at his indirectness, the ambiguousness of his answers nor his uncharismatic approach. They may, and probably were, frustrated by other factors of his performance but his ability to engage was unlikely to be one of them.
Cameron, on the other hand, was quite the opposite. Obviously prepped by his army of advisors on topics to avoid, messages to reinforce and tone to portray; the Prime Minister had all the charm and lucidity of the PR man he is often accused of being. Handicapped by previous comments he had made on the EU, Cameron lumbered through, persistently resorting to political doublespeak in order to escape the proverbial self-dug hole. When questioned on the potential economic consequences of Brexit, he spouted inconsequential statistics, many of which have already been disregarded as false by independent bodies. There is no doubt that Farage outshone Cameron on the night but this is merely a microcosm of Britain’s dearth in political personalities.
Across the board, there is disillusionment with mainstream figures in the political establishment. The Conservative party itself is practically a charisma void but for Boris Johnson and arguably Jacob Rees-Mogg. The Cabinet is practically awash with the relatively uncontroversial, middle-to-upper class Englander that has defined the Tories throughout its history. That may have been fine in the first part of the twentieth century but in multicultural 2016, that make-up simply isn’t conducive to political engagement. Developments in media and especially social media have made personality increasingly crucial in politics and this is something the Tories clearly have not got a grip of.
Across the House of Commons, Labour are not fairing much better. It is almost universally agreed that Ed Miliband’s public persona was in some way at fault for the party’s crushing defeat at the last election; a problem which also hampered his predecessor Gordon Brown. Undoubtedly, the media’s portrayal of the pair was immensely unfair at times but it is a problem which stems from their own doing. This is probably why Jeremy Corbyn was such a popular choice to succeed Miliband. His naturally insubordinate personality signified something different, something new, somebody who like-minded people could trust and believe was going to fight for them.
Corbyn, though, is not the answer. His unconformity to simple populist customs like singing the national anthem and even wearing a tie has made him the subject of, at times, incomprehensible abuse in the media. Without a doubt this has been somewhat unwarranted but a good media rapport is almost a pre-requisite to electoral success these days and that is something Corbyn is unlikely ever to have.
Unfortunately, looking through the list of Labour MP’s, there is nobody that jumps out as someone that will appeal on a personal level to the masses. Dan Jarvis a former British Army Major is joint favourite to become the next leader of the party and given his past which undeniably will bring automatic respect, could be a good choice. Jarvis, though, has stayed relatively hidden from the media side of politics and it remains to be seen if he will be an engaging speaker when the spotlight is upon him.
Irrefutably, the lack of characters in the mainstream has contributed to the rise of the smaller parties. The Green’s, UKIP and SNP all enjoyed unprecedented results at the last general election and one of the main reasons for this is that their representatives are able to speak unrestricted by focus group results or fear of controversy. Of course with this comes obvious mishaps. Natalie Bennett’s infamous LBC radio interview clearly didn’t win her any fans, while Nigel Farage was lamented from all corners, including his own, for comments made on HIV and AIDS patients during a TV debate. Nevertheless, the three won over 21% of the vote amassing a combined 58 seats (56 of them admittedly for the SNP). Now it could be said that rather than agreement with these parties, this came as a result of an atmosphere of anti-establishmentism. However, both surely are born out of the same feeling of disillusionment with the mainstream.
If there is something that can be learned from this, it is that politicians need to make themselves relatable to the electorate. Not by listening to focus groups or their advisors but by getting out in their constituencies’, finding the real issues that matter to people and acting upon this. The EU referendum has shone a light on this issue and if Brexit really does happen, the imbalance of personalities will be very much at the basis of this.