Politics: spinning out of spin

Mike Kietly 13 October 2007

We won’t get a break off work for a day in November. No chance to camp out in bed and feel guilty about not getting up to post our vote in the ballot box.

Following Gordon Brown’s decision not to call an election for next month, a jubilant David Cameron asserted that Brown has been uncovered by his erstwhile opponents as the weak politician he really is. ‘I think people sitting at home will think ‘he’s just not being straight with me, he’s treating the British people like fools’, the Tory leader said.

In the days since Tony Blair left Downing Street, both Brown and Cameron have been presenting themselves as the faces of a new kind of politics. Both are ‘spinning’ themselves as public figures that have dispensed with spin. Now they the ordinary blokes screaming to get out from beneath the pelt of the modern, professional politician.

In contrast to his assured image while Chancellor, the current PM looks like an emergency construct: the new clothes, hair and voice feel like the makeover of Portia in the ADC’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ last term. Similarly, the Conservative leader’s apology for going without notes at the recent Tory Party Conference – ‘it may be messy, but it will be me’ – was calculated spontaneity, rehearsed until it squeaked.

In the modern world, the idea of ‘rebranding’ is as seductive to the politician as it is to the desperate B-list celebrity. The obsession of both parties with making their leader seem ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ results from a perception that it is normality that will win elections.

In America, the most reliable indicator in recent elections has been the polls that ask voters not about healthcare, Iraq or education, but who they would rather have a drink with. Whatever one’s opinion of American democracy, most of us would agree that the so-called ‘beer test’ has come to occupy the forefront of our politicians’ thinking. Perhaps we should give it a British slant, how about: “All hail the ale examination”?

The dominance of Oxbridge graduates on both front benches demonstrates the fact that attending either of the two oldest Universities is not exactly a stumbling block for the aspiring politician. But Brown’s gloomy somberness hardly makes him seem like the ideal drinking companion in the College bar. At least the Tories possess a leader who is not pretending to be something he isn’t — ‘they called me ‘Dave’ in the rugger team’. Will it ever be possible for Cameron, an Old Etonian as well as an Oxford graduate, to ever win the ‘beer test’ in modern Britain and become PM?

That said, Cameron is almost obliged, given the comic slipperiness of his route to the top, to let everyone know that his was not the hardest upbringing. After Prep School and Eton, he was naturally convivial at Oxford, always knowing when to say thank you to his tutors. His much-publicised membership of the shadowy ‘Bullingdon’ Club was apparently “for the conversation” with friends like Boris Johnson (rather than for its more infamous activities of vomiting and vandalism). The only surprise is that he avoided student politics; the need to learn how to be diplomatic was clearly unnecessary back then.

Brown was by all accounts a brilliant, if geeky student. Having entered Edinburgh University at 16, he had become ‘rector’ by the time he was 23, and took on the university establishment over student grants. Unlikely as it may seem, “Gordon for Me” T-shirts were apparently all the rage for pretty girls in Edinburgh that year. ‘Serious’ Gordon knew how to play the smiling face, even before the media-schooling by figures like Peter Mandelson had left its mark.

We all want leaders who are human, but not at the price of their political principles. Yet in their desire to fulfill the role of the ‘bloke down at the local’, the two men who will be fighting for our vote are both forsaking any strong political principles.

Mike Kietly