Personality Politics: The Choice

Part 1. Ben Ffrench begins his evaluation of the rise of personality politics in the latest Martlet Online series.

Ed Miliband speaking at Chatham House.
Ed Miliband speaking at Chatham House.

The 2010 general election debates were the starting point that heralded in the arrival of ‘Personality Politics’- a new political cult of the personality. While policies and positions had always taken centre stage, the position of political leaders was taking a greater role in shaping democracy. And rather than the usual Conservative V Labour slugfest, these were exciting new times.

An up and coming third party, the Liberal Democrats, were gaining increasing ground in the months leading up to May 2010- and their charismatic leader was an important reason. At the election debates, Nick Clegg had a ball. ‘I agree with Nick’ was a term widely heard.

Six years later, a lifetime in political terms, and the cult of the personality is more dominant than ever. It shapes and controls governments and elections. But what does this mean for the political process? In this series, I aim to find out.

Five years later, and a reputation destroyed. The short term glory of Nick Clegg, the man who gambled it all for power in a highly controversial coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservatives, led an unpopular party who faced oblivion- they would certainly be kicked out at the next election. His failed promises on tuition fees, combined with the blame for Conservative cuts was destructive. How looks can deceive the fickle.

But the vacuum of power led to an opportunity for change. And it was strongly predicted, through the leadership of Labour, under Ed Miliband. Labour were tipped to win, with a possible Labour-SNP coalition on the cards. Enter the media, the great decider of elections. They deployed the most powerful political weapon known to man against the opposition leader: an attack on the personality.

The most poisonous, personal assault on a political figure in living memory had begun, in the early months of 2015. The result was beyond imagination. The most personal and intense attack was horrific, and no one was safe, with attacks on everyone dear to Miliband. The aim: full destruction. Miliband’s father, the hero who gave his son a future, was vilified as: ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’ by the Daily Mail. A photo of the man’s incompetence at eating a bacon sandwich was a Sun headline. And in a sniping attack on the leader’s left wing credentials was also posted by the paper- a headline quoting the embattled politician: We do have two kitchens- Nanny uses the one downstairs’, a headline developed after a picture emerged of Miliband in a downstairs kitchen, with his wife Justine.

The petty, pathetic, and sometimes maliciously personal nature of these broadsheets is obvious. But it is incredible, and further worrying to note that rather than choose to scrutinise and criticise Labour policy, the papers chose to make it personal to Ed Miliband and his loved ones. And it worked. The image of an incompetent, back-stabbing (he took on his brother for the leadership contest) and weak geek who wasn’t fit to rule stuck in the minds of voters, who gave the Conservatives their first majority in over two decades.

We are still living with the consequences of what I believe to be an incredibly foolish decision. The electorate chose the smooth-talking, Etonian style of Tory leader David Cameron over Miliband’s awkwardly presented, yet meaningful substance. And they have paid the price: the Conservative- promised EU referendum has led to Brexit, and the worst economic forecast on record, fuelled by cuts, lack of investment, and uncertainty.

This most clear of cases shows the impact of personality politics in our day and age. Now, it is not just parties that the electorate vote for. It is personalities. Even in an indirect election system, where voters elect a local MP, political leadership is not far from the minds of voters.

Voters did not just vote on the basis of policy, or government. They voted for a Prime Minister. Rightly or wrongly, they believed David Cameron to be a more suitable leader for the country. And now they bear the consequences of a stupendously thoughtless decision.