Personality politics: the death of sensible debate

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Claire Thomson
Views Editor

If we’ve learned anything so far in 2015, it’s surely that pigs and politics don’t mix. It is a lesson that Ed Miliband (remember him?) and David Cameron have learned the hard way. Poor Ed was ridiculed for failing to eat a bacon sandwich with grace, something I’d confidently challenge anyone to do, while David Cameron, it is alleged, took his love of pork products one big sordid step further.

These failings and antics of our political heavyweights are the stuff of Paul Dacre’s dreams. They fill the front pages, shift copies and generate flurries of scandalised clicks. As much as we pretend we’re all educated voters, capable of sifting through the tabloid drivel and reaching the nitty gritty of policy – they affect how we vote.

More so than ever before, this country votes for individuals. We vote for those who don’t stumble when they attempt to declare that yes, they are tough enough. We vote for those who wear the right ties. We vote for those who don’t have details of their affairs splashed across the red tops. It remains to be seen however, if we’ll vote for those who just really, really like pigs.

Perhaps this is obvious. Of course we vote for those ‘honest’ men (and they usually are men) who wear crisp suits whilst raising a pint of Real Ale to the beams of an English country pub. It’s for this reason that political press offices are kept so busy and The Thick of It hit so many nails on so many heads.

We all love a character. It is arguably the public’s love for characters that gives reality TV its staggeringly high ratings, and has cemented the enduring popularity of the ultimate cultural cornerstone, the novel. There is nothing wrong with enjoying entertainment and becoming embroiled in the twists and the turns of the lives of characters in the books we read and the shows we watch. The issue comes when the way we approach entertainment becomes the way we approach our politics. If we continue to allow the personal and the political to become ever more irrevocably entwined, it will be at the detriment of our democracy and the decline of intelligent and reasoned debate.

The danger of all of this is that we forget what we are actually voting for. Pig-gate dominated political discourse on social media for days on end. Well intentioned photo ops of days past of Cameron holding piglets were given many more inches in tabloids than were reports of his actual politics and policies. Cameron’s personal dalliances, with human or with swine, frankly do not matter. His Oxford antics are of very little importance to the thousands damaged by the deep cuts his government imposes. Our prime minister is far more than a character. He is a very real political actor whose actions in government affect the lives of every single one of us.

Voting for personalities isn’t a 21st-century invention. My own great-aunt, Betty voted Conservative many years ago simply because the candidate looked like her late brother, John, “John was a good man, so he must be too.” I wish I was joking. It would be lazy, and inaccurate, to blame the ‘modern age’ for this, so to whom should we point the finger of blame?

The unpalatable truth is, if we are to change anything we must point the finger of blame at ourselves. Afterall, we indulge in the personalities of our elected officials in the same way we do with the Kardashians and retweet Peppa Pig screenshots with glee.

There’s an argument to be made that perhaps this is exactly what those in power want; the more attention we pay to their stutterings and bedroom antics the less we notice their underhand foreign policy tactics or their systematic attack on the poor of this country. We ought not to allow them to fill the papers and our minds with tales of scandal at the expense of political knowledge and analysis. However, there are very real glimmers of hope which suggest this age of personality politics is coming to an end.

Corbyn’s landslide victory in September was a rare victory for policy over personality. The 66-year-old allotment enthusiast with a penchant for tatty tweed and homemade jam convinced an enormous number of people to pay £3 and cast their vote. His manifesto offered something different; a departure from Neo-Blairism and a return to Labour’s roots. As leader of the opposition, Corbyn has committed to doing his bit to change the way in which PMQs operates. Rather than allowing the Wednesday institution to carry on in the manner of the laddish GUU Debates Chamber – where soundbites and one liners make for a successful performance, Corbyn operates in an altogether more considered manner. Members of the public may submit questions online, the most pertinent of which Corbyn asks the prime minister. In so doing, Corbyn shifts the focus from his own personality and witticisms to the people the chamber exists to represent – the commons.

We ought to learn from Corbyn. Weaning ourselves off the delights of scandal and slick soundbites won’t be easy, but we’ll reap the rewards. Our culture’s fixation on the personal lives of politicians is dulling our political perceptions; and that’s exactly what so many of the people we elect would like. Politics is not entertainment and it’s not a spectacle to be gazed upon from a distance. It’s up to us to look past the personalities and characters of our leaders and start focussing on their actions. Once we do that, perhaps our politicians will sharpen their policies rather than their suits.