In an age when image is all, what’s a grumpy Scotsman to do?

I was reading Turbine last night, in search of a cure for insomnia, and happened upon the mag’s discussion of the Labour leadership crisis. As luck would have it, WorldbyStorm has some pertinent points to make in re Austin Mitchell’s contribution.

But this whole thing raises a few interesting questions for me. Actually, I think Brown is the victim of a number of things – an extraordinary run of bad luck, a dogmatic attachment to NuLab orthodoxy in the face of events,  a herd mentality in the press (not unlike what John Major suffered) and, not least, an electorate that’s thoroughly fed up with New Labour and isn’t inclined to listen to anything the government has to say. Hence, I suppose, the polls indicating that a change in leadership wouldn’t improve Labour’s dire prospects.

But there was something else that struck me, and it was this. During a recent Newsnight debate, all anyone could talk about was that Brown wasn’t as good at projecting his image as that great snake-oil salesman Blair. He didn’t let his personality come through. He didn’t smile enough. People who know the guy say he’s affable and witty, but everyone else seems to think he’s a dour misery-guts. While Cameron was doing lots of cheesy photo-ops with his agreeable wife and family, Brown was reluctant to do so. And so on. Even the Tory was saying this.

And, you know, in these days of politics minus political differences, this is really what it comes down to. The cult of personality.

The undoubted master of this new postmodern politics was of course Bill Clinton. Slick Willie was a phony through and through, of course, but he was a brilliant phony. You remember that woman with the terminally ill partner who confronted Mr Tony on the election trail to complain about his medical treatment, and how embarrassed Mr Tony looked and how he had nothing to say to her? If that had been Clinton, he would have flung his arm around the woman, said he felt her pain, and demanded to meet her partner immediately and listen to his story first-hand. That was the great thing about Clinton. Even when you knew the corn was as high as an elephant’s eye, you could hardly help being swept along by him.

And so it continues. The current Democratic presidential candidate, Irish-American senator Barack O’Bama, clearly models his style on Clinton (with maybe a touch of Bono thrown in). And so it is that “Dave” Cameron obviously models himself on Mr Tony. Brown, for whatever reason, can’t do that kind of politics, or at least can’t do it well.

So what of the future options for Labour? Well, Labour has never in its history defenestrated a leader, and the party constitution makes it exceedingly difficult to do so. That means that Brown can probably hang on as long as he wants, helped by the other putative candidates’ unwillingness to take on an obviously poisoned chalice.

The other candidates don’t really inspire much confidence either. If you look around Brown’s cabinet, it’s like something out of The Stepford Wives. Ed Balls? James Purnell? Yvette Cooper? These people are lightweights, products of the NuLab conveyor belt. None of them cuts a credible dash, and far too many are simply placemen who hold office purely due to Brown’s favour rather than any obvious talents.

There is of course the prince across the water, the Foreign Secretary, nine-year-old wunderkind David Miliband. Clearly a young man in a hurry, and dead lucky Brown didn’t have the bottle to sack him for blatant disloyalty. Some folks say young Miliband is a sharp intellectual, although his first foreign policy speech – where he raised the prospect of extending the European Union into Africa – struck me as just a little crazy, just a little too wonky for his own good. George Galloway was denouncing him on the wireless the other week as the son of “Britain’s leading Trotskyite”, but I remember Ralph Miliband and know for a fact that he was never a Trot in his life. George must have been having a senior moment. But, even if we apply the logic of postmodern personality-driven politics, I can see Miliband having a bit of an image problem. He’s just a bit too reminiscent of the young Blair for comfort. To tell you the truth, he looks like just the sort of squirt who Dennis the Menace should be chivvying with a catapult. Maybe in a decade or two…

I’ve heard some Labour people speak highly of Jacqui Smith’s ability, and tip her as a possible future leader, but again, I have trouble seeing it as a realistic prospect. Over the last year, Jacqui has learned the hard way the great peril of the Home Secretary’s job, that you can do very little about crime but at the same time every headline-grabbing crime will make you look bad. Can the Home Secretary stop some teenager getting stabbed? No, but she’ll get the blame if there’s a wave of stabbings.

But, again coming back to postmodern image politics, there is the rather delicate matter of… well, there’s really no avoiding this… Jacqui Smith can’t be Labour leader because her boobs are too big. This sounds like a Jim Davidson punchline, but I’m quite serious. Politics remains a thoroughly sexist business, where women are judged on their appearance, weight or shape in a way that would never be applied to men. In Jacqui’s case, the lobby correspondents, some of whom evidently never left the sixth form, manage to make some sniggering reference to her ample rack on a weekly basis, sometimes in the most improbable of contexts, not to mention the way she’s parodied in Private Eye. If she ever did a walkabout in casual clothing then, as sure as night follows day, the press pack would go berserk. So, until journalists as a group grow up and realise that women have had the vote for ninety years, that’s too bad for Jacqui.

Actually, if there’s one person in the current cabinet with enough substance to be a plausible leader, it’s Jack Straw. And this conclusion surprises me a little, because I’ve never much cared for Jack. But, with most of the substantial and experienced figures in Labour either retired, discredited or dead, it looks like the only student leader from 1968 never to be remotely radical is the last man standing. But again I can see Jack falling foul of today’s post-Blair-and-Clinton image-driven politics. Isn’t he just too old, too grey, too dull? And, right enough, even Jack himself must know that he’s never going to set the world alight.

Isn’t all this just a trifle superficial? Of course it is, that’s the whole point. Mainstream British politics today, Tory and Lib Dem no less than NuLab, is a desert of superficiality where somebody like “Dave” Cameron can be considered a credible political leader on no other basis than being young and having good hair. No wonder my old comrade Peter Hitchens is depressed. So am I.

12 Comments

  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    August 19, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    I’d entirely agree. Jack Straw is the only one who seems to be up to the job. Weird that.

  2. WorldbyStorm said,

    August 19, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    Erm… did you know P. Hitchens?

  3. Simon said,

    August 20, 2008 at 1:03 am

    I don’t think we know the name of the next Labour PM.

    Next Leader? Who cares?

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 20, 2008 at 9:03 am

    Never knew Peter in his Trot period, but have crossed his path a few times and found him quite charming. The guy says he’s a conservative, but I think in stylistic terms he’s still got a lot of the old SWP training.

  5. Cian OConnor said,

    August 20, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    alan Johnson?

  6. Lobby Ludd said,

    August 21, 2008 at 12:49 am

    Cian OConnor said:

    “alan Johnson?”

    Steady on, old thing, Cian. That kind of talk could get Alan NTM over-excited. He and his mates are already fighting several world wars, I’m sure he would, with regret, turn down the honour until his work was done.

    Oh, silly me, you meant that bloke with the shiny face.

    No chance, far too ugly.

  7. Binh said,

    August 21, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    So, did this cure your insomnia, or make it worse?

    For me the big question in the American context is what will happen to the left once Obama wins. Will it shrivel and wither in demoralization as it did after Clinton broke every promise he made on the campaign trail and instead delivered NAFTA and the destruction of welfare? Or will thousands of people (esp. blacks) feel like “their” guy is in the White House and begin petitioning him to redress all kinds of grievances – I’m thinking the relatives of innocent people in jail, soldiers screwed out of benefits by the Pentagon – opening up new possibilities for organizing?

    Either way, I’m still dead-set against anyone voting for this corporate snake oil salesman. And I agree with you Clinton was/is the most masterful of bourgeois politicians in generations, and I think Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee are up there as well.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 22, 2008 at 6:05 am

    I agree, you know. There were a few good articles earlier on in the year, where Obama-supporting women argued that you shouldn’t vote Clinton just because she’s a woman. And Obama does get a scandalously easy ride because he’s black, although I’d also argue it’s because he isn’t too black, he isn’t Sharpton or Jesse.

    Will his election open up opportunities, with his base putting demands on him? It might do. It’s probably impossible to tell until it either happens or doesn’t.

  9. ejh said,

    August 22, 2008 at 8:06 am

    On this Newsnight show, did anybody ask how good Attlee was at projecting an image? Or do I already know the answer to my own question?

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 22, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    To ask the question is to answer it. Just think, if this little bald bloke with the moustache had been around today, what rigorous criticism he would have faced.

  11. sonofstan said,

    August 24, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    And if his opponent had been the fat, old bloke with the outrageous wife and the completely obvious drink problem….


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