Make 'em laugh, make 'em vote

trevor phillips on levity in leadership
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The Independent Online
Should politicians be interesting? It has taken me some weeks to get round to the painful subject of my old friend Mr Tony Banks, the sports minister, but his very existence in Government seems to pose this question. Mr Banks seems incapable of asking for an egg sandwich without provoking controversy and hilarity. His comparison of William Hague to a foetus at the Labour Party conference was widely condemned, but in the television pictures of his speech I don't think I noticed anybody not laughing, much less walking out.

It is people like Banks who make politics interesting for the great mass of the public; people are inclined to forgive them their little peccadilloes, as long as they entertain. Contrast Mr Banks with rather more successful politicians, such as, for example, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, both of whom it is said were advised to avoid making jokes in public in case people thought they were lightweight. Since taking power of course they've cracked the odd gag and, remarkably, Mr Brown has been seen to smile. Judge for yourself whether it is an improvement.

But if the rule is that successful politicians must avoid being entertaining, Mr Blair with his plans for elected city mayors is about to pose us with a major problem. All the experience from the US and elsewhere is that the people like their directly elected politicians with flaws and weaknesses - so long as they hold their attention. In this country few politicians seem able to excite public interest without attracting the salacious attentions of the tabloid press. From this perspective, there is no denying that in the fight for our attention, affairs of the heart win over affairs of state every time.

It gives me great pleasure then, to report an encounter with Britain's queen of romance, Miss Cilla Black, in which politics came off best. Earlier this week, I recorded a programme about politics in the TV studio next to the one in which Miss Black records Blind Date. An integral part of this programme's appeal is the roaring, cheering, catcalling studio audience, which registers public emotion towards the contestants. Figuratively speaking you can hear them a mile mile away. Yet Miss Black, meeting me in the corridor was moved to enquire in the way only she can "What's going on in there, chuck?" and members of her team were, I'm told, ready to ask our audience to keep it down a bit, please.

What was going on was in itself a kind of blind date, albeit a purely political one. We had persuaded four leading Londoners to imagine that they were running for Mayor; not difficult for Lord Archer and Ken Livingstone, both already well into their campaigns. At present no-one quite knows what they're campaigning to be, as the shape of the mayoralty will be decided by a referendum next May. We do know that it will be the biggest job in politics next to the PM and Chancellor; and that in its wake will follow directly-elected mayors for every major British city and large town.

Mr Blair thinks that this new departure for our democracy should engage the ordinary voter's enthusiasm. There is little doubt that Londoners like the idea of new leadership for the capital. An opinion poll commissioned by LWT, The Evening Standard and KPMG, showed that they will vote by almost four to one for a new city government. Interestingly, by a massive majority, they would like the first mayor to be independent of the political parties; a desire reflected in the runaway poll victory for Richard Branson. It takes only a moment's thought to work out that Branson won't give up his business interests to enter politics. When asked what he might do were he mayor, his big idea was to grass over many of London's streets. However, the vote is an indication that London will elect someone they don't think of principally as a politician, whatever his or her party label.

The real issue now is whether mayoral contests will give our moribund local politics a shot in the arm. So we put it to the test by staging, effectively a virtual election. Our four contenders were Livingstone, Archer, the broadcaster Darcus Howe and the former City of London boss Michael Cassidy. Each made personal political broadcasts which were shown to the audience; they were then quizzed by a panel led by Max Hastings, the editor of The Evening Standard, and then they were subjected to a grilling by the public. Instead of rowing with each other, they were forced to talk directly to the people. It was a revelation. Livingstone won, narrowly, but that was unimportant. What mattered was that for over an hour, the studio rocked with contention and humour. We know that Ken is witty, and that Archer is a born showstopper. But there was genuine eloquence, principally from Howe, and Cassidy's hard-nosed businessman act attracted waves of applause. This was, in a way, politics reclothed in the language of showbusiness; to my surprise, having cast the event principally as theatre, it tackled some complex political issues - the place of the political independent, for example, in an interesting and revealing way.

In many ways, this is a return to an earlier English tradition of politics - before radio and television, where those who sought to represent the people had to appear, unprotected by spin doctors, and unmediated by journalists. Yes, I know there were rotten boroughs, but there were also genuine contests. In this electronic age, it may seem strange to argue that politics should be carried out in this way. But, there is an appetite for it, where the citizen believes the debate will be more than the trotting out of party lines. We saw this spectacularly demonstrated last year in the Evening Standard debates on London, where thousands turned out to hear debates on issues as arcane as the use of green space in the capital.

Mr Blair, who addressed one of these debates, was right to promise that he would be carrying on his live, unscripted, shirtsleeved appearances. Face-to-face democracy still has an important role that the media cannot usurp; we want to see and hear our rulers and engage with them. This is not territory that should be left to the single issue pressure groups or protesters; pressing the flesh has come to have a rather limited, intimate meaning for our mainstream politicians. Instead of limiting themselves to one-to-one encounters, they need to rediscover their ability to excite us by the thousand.