The Crisis of De-meh-cracy 

Across some of the world’s largest democracies, an odd consistency is breaking out. Political commentators may obsess about which outdated election is about to be reproduced. Is it a 1997 style landslide or a Canada 1992 existential wipeout? They talk with wide eyes and rose-tinted specs of the electoral heirs to Obama, Blair, Reagan or Thatcher. Even, and bear with me, to Johnson.

But nobody cares. Not in the usual way, either. Of course, nobody has ever cared about politics as much as those paid to obsess about it, but the lack of excitement is beyond even Carabao Cup levels. It’s a pre-season friendly in the rain. It’s one of the later series of The X Factor. Nobody, nobody, cares.

There’s a reason. Democracy has not delivered its finest harvest. The prospect of Biden (81, who yesterday “boarded Marine One successfully” according to the most brutal Reuters wire text ever accompanying a pool video) vs Trump (insert your own preferred disqualifying factor here) has led to that most remarkable of American achievements; cross party consensus. Two thirds of all Americans, according to a recent Ipsos/Reuters poll, are “tired of seeing the same candidates and want someone new” while 56% and 58% disapprove of the specific selection of Biden and Trump respectively.

In the UK, it’s much the same. YouGov’s leader approval tracker has the PM at a record low -45% net favourability, and Starmer at a hardly dizzying -25%. Only three in ten have a positive view of the man most likely to become Prime Minister in the near future.

Now, this is not the nadir. Here, Johnson vs Corbyn was truly the bottom of the electoral barrel. But at least they were individuals who, for their many, many failings and appalling liabilities, aroused some excitement in their supporters, no matter how misguided. The same cannot be said for their descendents.

Modern politics lives at the overlap of personality and policy. One cannot exist without the other. Personality must be seen to guide policy, a vision, a set of clearly discernible values that inform a policy manifesto. Policy, though, must in turn provide evidence to those claims of human character, showing that you put your (our) money where your mouth is.

Politics is littered with failed plans on both policy and personality. Trickle down economics and communism don’t work, whatever the ‘never been done properly’ brigade say of either. Neither, though, has ‘dull is what we need right now’ or ‘well at least he/she’s not the other one’. Just ask Hillary. Or the Remain campaign. Or Gordon ‘not Flash, just Gordon’ Brown.

‘Vote Dull, vs Dangerous’ is the strategy of the empty end-of-brainstorm whiteboard. ‘Better the dullard you know’ does not make for a compelling candidate. It’s the attempt to recast a bug as a feature that makes fleeting sense when you’re wearing a lanyard in SW1, but out in the real world all they hear is dull. No, actually that’s not true. They just hear nothing.

Our politics of risk aversion, beholden to the scrutiny of 24-hour news, message discipline and relentless focus groups, has so utterly filed the sharp edges from our politicians as to present to voters an Angel Delight menu of texture-free, substance-less artifice that is seldom a true reflection of those who enter public service.

It’s no wonder that when we get glimpses of basic, even flawed, humanity, these leaders often become more popular. Farage’s perennial pint. Biden’s adorable penchant for rail travel. May’s wheat-field-based confessions. These glimpses into some sense of a human being are infinitely more valuable than the focussed group word salads that too often pass for personality.

In the coming weeks and months, shadow cabinet members have two tasks, then. To reveal and explain the policy that will be their platform for power, when the manifesto is launched, but also to show more of the people who will deliver it. As the scrutiny increases, the instinct will be to do the opposite. To retreat to the safety of the focus group approved line, the hard-hat high-vis photo-op.

The prize, though, is worth the bravery required. It’s not too late to deliver poll-boosting personality alongside popular policy, even if it’s imperfect. Because human beings are imperfect, flawed, singular. By happy coincidence, that’s what we need in our society, too. A tolerance of imperfection. A willingness to abide by difference and to flee the binary simplification of social media argument. We would all do well to remember that our candidates are human beings who ended up there because they made the personal choice to engage in public service, no matter how flawed they are as individuals. We need to remember they’re just people. They need to remind us more often of that fact.

 

This column is part of media strategist Alex Hesz’s ‘Mission Messaging’ series for Progressive Britain. If you enjoyed this piece, check out the previous instalment, It May Happen – Why Sunak might still spring a surprise.