Comment: UK needs policies, not personalities

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What do politicians fear most? Recessions? Scandals? Global catastrophes? Any of these things is perfectly understandable. But a bacon sandwich? Perhaps less so. Unless of course your name is Ed Miliband. If you are a member of Mr Miliband’s press team you probably fear nothing more than a repeat of his encounter with said savoury snack. This is modern politics. It is wrong.

Riots Communities and Victims Panel meeting

Ed Miliband has faced criticism for his public appearances, but does it really matter?

Ever since Ed Miliband was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2010 he has been publicly scrutinised for his persona; his mannerisms; he has been portrayed as socially awkward and weak. Every opportunistic journalist around seems to point a camera in his direction hoping to catch him pulling a strange face or, god forbid, eating a sandwich. It is hard to feel sorry for a politician but at times it seems as if Miliband-baiting is the media’s new favourite game. Rarely is there a discussion about Miliband that does not draw reference to his appearance or his perceived weakness. Is this what politics has become? A glorified popularity contest for the TOWIE generation?

Politics is not about – or rather it should not be about – charisma and persona – about how good the candidate is at speaking. It should be about what they are actually saying. Take President Obama as an example. He is extremely charismatic, a brilliant speaker and a very likable man. But has this made him a great president? Many would argue it has not.

Politics seems to be becoming more about the person and less about the policies. This is a worrying development. The rise of UKIP is seen as a reflection of a mounting discontent for the old guard of British politics: rich middle-aged white men. UKIP are the exciting new kids on the block and Nigel Farage is their frontman. He has been fantastic at manipulating the press with repeated photographs of him appearing down-to-earth with beer in hand and grin on his face. He is very charismatic and extremely appealing to many people because of it. He has successfully distracted many people from seeing what he actually is: a rich middle-aged white man.

In October and November of last year UKIP gained their first elected MPs. Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless both defected from the Conservatives, triggering by-elections that they won by significant majorities. This was seen as a major victory for UKIP and has made Westminster take them seriously. But does it not in fact provide evidence of something else? What is often overlooked is the fact that both of these men won their Conservative seats in 2010 by similarly large majorities. While the Conservatives and UKIP are both on the right-hand side of the political spectrum, other similarities are hard to come by. In fact, the public knowledge of UKIP’s policies is pretty limited. And this is worrying. Is it not the case that these two MPs won their seats not because of the policies of the Party they belong to but because of who they are – their charisma and public persona?

Don Foster has been MP for Bath since 1992 and has consistently won significant majorities over his opponents. This is despite the policies of his Party evolving considerably over this timespan. Boris Johnson is routinely touted as David Cameron’s natural successor as leader of the Conservatives. He is highly quotable – the press love him; he is the class clown and would almost certainly do well were he to lead the Conservatives into a general election. Regardless of policy.
Charisma is therefore clearly a valuable asset for any prospective politician. It is the sign of a statesman. It portrays strength and power. Vladimir Putin is a statesman. An all-conquering figure whose persona Russians find reassuring. Winston Churchill was the same. He is regularly voted as the ‘greatest Briton’ but I would argue that he was not our greatest Prime Minister – not by some distance. His policies were often flawed and as Chancellor in the 1920s he can be held partly accountable for causing the hardship of the following decade. Clement Attlee, however, I would argue is our greatest Prime Minister. He was quiet and unassuming – poor at public speaking and lacking the charisma of many of his counterparts. And yet he rebuilt the country after World War Two and formed the foundations of modern-day Britain. Ever heard of him?

And this is my point. What a politician looks like or does in front of the camera indicates absolutely nothing about how good they will be at running the country. Britain does not need a statesman – someone that worries foreign governments simply due to their public persona. It is not the Cold War anymore. What the country needs are strong policies. That is what we should base our decisions on come 7th May. We must vote for policies, not personalities.

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Liam Gowing is an Economics student. He writes about British national politics.

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