In our previous post we made the simple point that many of today’s politicians don’t look like us. Another reason we feel so disconnected from our politicians is that they seem so detached themselves, and because they express little feeling or passion. The current political class is increasingly technocratic because politics is increasingly a profession rather than a calling. They’re in danger of becoming Stepford politicians, opening up a ‘passion gap’ that can be occupied by dogmatists who do demonstrate their passion but for their own dangerous ends.
If you haven’t already, check out Julia Gillard’s recent speech on sexism and misogyny in Australian politics. Gillard used the speech to brand her opponent, Tony Abbott, who is the Leader of the opposition Liberal Party, a sexist and misogynist. What stood out was her anger and passion. Gillard told Abbott that if he wanted to know what a misogynist in modern Australia looks like then he should look in a mirror. She called him out on a range of sexist views he has espoused during his long political career. It was authentic, passionate and unspun.
The video of Gillard’s speech on YouTube has gone viral with two million views, and the speech was a top ten trending item in Australia on Twitter as well as trending internationally. It made headline news in South Africa, India, Canada and here in the UK. Jezebel, the popular American website for women lauded Gillard as “one badass motherfucker” after what it called her “epic speech on sexism”. Gillard’s approval ratings have risen significantly in the first public opinion survey since her speech. Almost 42% of Australians now think her opponent is sexist and the poll also shows that Gillard is 10 points clear of Abbott as preferred Prime Minister.
Contrast this to President Obama’s performance in the first US Presidential debate. He lacked passion, was detached and professorial, whilst his opponent Mitt Romney demonstrated energy and passion. Romney left the debate with a momentum which has carried through into the polls, wiping out Obama’s advantage. Romney has also been accused of being technocratic and wooden – probably the only reason why the election is close at all. The debate also highlighted one of the weaknesses of Obama’s presidency – his failure to maintain the energy and passion that he engendered in his supporters in 2008. Romney highlighted this in his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican convention:
“Hope and Change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”
It’s become a common complaint that today’s politicians lack passion and are too technocratic. Mayor Boris Johnson has been labelled by Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome as the “Heineken Tory” who can reach parts of the electorate that other Conservatives struggle to reach in part because of his energy and passion. The same could have been said about Tony Blair in his early days as leader of the Labour Party – he connected with middle England in a way that no other senior politician on the left was able to. Sarah Palin is yet another politician who cut through to energise her party’s base because of her energy and passion – although in her case the euphoria unravelled quickly because of her lack of experience.
Of course, Prime Minister’s Questions has an element of passion – but it’s largely fake, a yaboo politics that disaffects rather than engages. It’s not so much passion that we want as authenticity – the feeling that politicians actually care about something and will take political risks to advocate for it. This is why Gillard’s speech stood out – she really believed in what she was talking about, and her anger and passion were genuine.
Part of the problem can be traced back to the rise of a professional political class. Politicians increasingly see politics as a career rather than a calling. The way to get ahead in politics now is to start out as a researcher to an MP after university, become a Special Adviser to a Minister or Shadow Minister, and then seek selection to a winnable seat before becoming part of the government shortly after entering Parliament. This aspiring politician might have a small period of time working for a think tank, a charity, in PR or the media, but generally in a role connected to politics. We now have a whole class of politicians whose whole careers have been inside the Westminster bubble – they have not held a job outside of politics. David Cameron, George Osborne, Andrew Lansley, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham have all trodden this path. The careers of Nick Clegg, Ed Davey, David Willetts and Danny Alexander have all centred on Westminster as well. In fact a third of the cabinet worked for a politician or political party before they became an MP:
- David Cameron: Special Adviser to both Norman Lamont as Chancellor and Michael Howard as Home Secretary
- Nick Clegg: EU policy official and adviser to Sir Leon Brittain as EU Commissioner*
- George Osborne: Special Adviser to Douglas Hogg as Agriculture Minister, worked in No 10 when John Major was Prime Minister and worked in William Hague’s office when he was Leader of the Opposition
- Vince Cable: Special Adviser to John Smith when he was a Cabinet Minister in 1970s
- Ed Davey: Adviser to Sir Alan Beith
- Andrew Lansley: Adviser to Norman Tebbit MP* & Conservative Party (Director of the Conservative Research Department)
- Michael Moore: Researcher for Archy Kirkwood MP
- David Willetts: Researcher for Nigel Lawson as Chancellor, worked in the No 10 Policy Unit when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and is the former head of the Centre for Policy Studies.
- David Laws: Economic Adviser and Director of Policy and Research for the Liberal Democrats
- Danny Alexander: Press Officer for the Liberal Democrats.
*paid as civil servants
The current approach to using interns in think tanks and charities reinforces this closed shop approach to the professional political class. In many ways, policy is the new ‘international development’ – to get a paid job you need to undertake an unpaid internship. This means that policy is increasingly only open to people whose families can support them financially.
This new professional political class lacks the backstory that politicians like Vice-President Joe Biden, Alan Johnson, Paddy Ashdown or David Davis bring to the job because of their experience outside of politics. Joe Biden is a single parent, Paddy Ashdown served in the Royal Marines, David Davis grew up on a south London council estate, whilst Alan Johnson started his career as a postman. Much play was made at the party conferences about the lives of the main party leaders before they became politicians, but no matter how these speeches were portrayed by the spinners, our current party leaders don’t have the wealth of experience outside of politics that the likes of Johnson, Ashdown etc do. They pale in comparison.
What matters here is the content – the policies that politicians advocate for and their real world consequences. Rich Yeselson argues that it isn’t the ‘truth’ of people’s personalities that matters but rather the factors involved in the reality of politics, such as the size of the majority in the legislature that influences policy. However, politicians’ backstories also matter. As Nadine Dorries, the backbench Conservative MP, has argued in relation to Osborne and Cameron:
“I think that not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others - and that is their real crime.”
Politicians can’t be passionate if their real passion is the inside game of politics rather than standing for something that matters to the rest of us. The real danger is that this passion gap creates the space for dangerous dogmatists who do demonstrate their passion – the far right politicians such as Pim Fortyun and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or the wholly self-interested politicians such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. If we want to avoid being subject to someone else’s passion, we will have to find our own - our political class is not providing it.