As a student of politics I am interested in the public’s perception of their government; how a weak leader can suppress votes, or how a minor corruption scandal can gravely damage an otherwise successful administration. In this field of study, one of the most common accusations is that today’s politicians are bland, soulless automatons with interchangeable ties and indistinguishable policies. This charge seemed especially plausible at the last general election, when the Prime Minister, his deputy, and the Leader of the Opposition were all dark haired, white, middle class men in their mid-40s. Bland politicians are generally treated with contempt, but are they in fact having the last laugh?
The recently published biographies of David Cameron have hinted at what many political pundits have either failed to spot or have simply chosen to ignore: Cameron’s extraordinary talent as a politician. This is a Prime Minister who regained close to 100 seats at his first general election. He then went on to increase both the Tories’ vote share and their seat tally after five years in government, decisively ending the New Labour era.
Lynton Crosby was recently knighted for plotting the Conservatives’ election victory in 2015, but last May’s result was largely Cameron’s achievement. We only have to look at how his opponent was portrayed to see why. The Tories' attacks on Ed Miliband were mostly juvenile, but accusations that the former Labour leader was geeky, weird and spineless were not devised solely out of thin air. They were exaggerations of negative aspects of Miliband's personality, and they had an impact on the electorate. Even if Cameron’s plan only worked at a subconscious level, it gave many voters a further reason not to vote for a party they were already partly unsure about.
Cameron of course displayed his own ‘idiosyncrasies’, but he has always managed to play them down as much as possible. Miliband, on the other hand, adopted the contrary approach; actively pointing out that, yes, he did look a bit odd when tackling a bacon sandwich and that he bore a vaguely similar likeness to a character from Wallace and Gromit. He did so in the naïve hope that most sensible and grown-up voters would not allow these quirks to sway their vote. Miliband failed, also, to address Labour’s record on the economy and the perception that he’d end up as soft putty for the SNP. The Tories won because they stayed ruthlessly on-message. Their unexciting and uninspiring campaign was headed by a cipher-like leader whose main ambition was to avoid controversy at all cost.
My theory dissolves slightly when you consider a figure like Margaret Thatcher – called many a thing in her time but rarely bland, boring, or uninspiring. To understand the Thatcher phenomenon we must appreciate the seismic legacy of the New Labour project. The Blair approach – that of spin, soundbites and fawning to the tabloids – fundamentally altered the presentation of politics in this country. Ever since, the emphasis has been on telling people what they want to hear, as opposed to Thatcher’s approach, which involved telling people what she felt they needed to hear.
The two most successful political leaders of modern times, Tony Blair and David Cameron, are both vacuous figures into whom voters could impart their own beliefs. So, what does this mean for the current opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn? A self-styled politician, right down to the beard and vests, Corbyn’s election last September was partly a rebellion against soundbite politicians like Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, who talked boldly about “values” and “change” without ever telling us what they really meant. Corbyn isn’t bland in the same way as Cameron or Blair, which means that he is electorally polarising. ‘Winning over the nation’ will therefore be difficult for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Corbyn may loath Blair and all he stood for, but the Blairite legacy is still with us. We live in an age when voters prefer their leaders to be impassive and uncontroversial, regardless of loud mavericks on the fringes. Corbyn can either attempt to adapt himself to this political reality or attempt to mould a new one. Doing nothing will only guarantee Labour’s defeat.
But, who will defeat Corbyn, come 2020? Once the EU referendum debate has ended, speculation will heighten over who will succeed David Cameron as Conservative leader. If my ‘bland theory’ has any traction, the Tories should pick George Osborne – in many ways a double of Cameron – and steer clear of any boisterous characters such as Boris Johnson. Yet, Osborne, seen as an austerity-inflicting Tory politician, is not well liked by the public (he was hidden from view during the 2010 election, and was memorably booed at the 2012 Olympics). It is almost appears as though Osborne is somehow contaminated, which perhaps gives weight to the suggestion that the next Tory leader will not be one of the current ‘big-hitters’, but instead a more modest and untested rising star.
The comedian Billy Connolly has long tried to rally against being bland, or ‘beige’ as he would say, calling it one of the worst sins. This country would cease to be a democracy if our politicians really were all the same. Conformity and uniformity stifle dissent and debate; the blood and oxygen of any healthy democracy. We may one day snap out of this habit and start choosing colourful leaders once again. However, for now, the Prime Minister’s method evidently works. ‘Anybody can go into politics’, a local councillor told me at a school’s career day many years ago. It must be one of the few career paths where being an anybody is such a valuable asset.