We cannot expect our MPs to look like Aidan Turner or Lily James, but appearance does count in politics

We need to get over the pretence that it doesn't. If you go for a job interview, you put on your best suit and get a good haircut

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If, like me, you’re a fan of Borgen, the Danish political drama, you’ll have watched Thursday’s seven-way debate looking for the Birgitte Nyborg Moment. This was when the fictional leader of the Moderate Party, in a TV debate with several opponents, cuts through their arguing and politicking with a direct, human appeal to voters. It hands her victory (as the largest party) in the election days later. As I sat down to watch the debate on Thursday evening, I looked for the British Birgitte. The first thing I noticed was the striking new hairstyle of Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru. It was in a stylish “up-do”, just like our Borgen heroine. “Maybe it’s her,” I thought to myself. I then had to strain pretty hard not to commit my thoughts to Twitter. How outrageous it would be for me, a female political journalist, to write about the hair of a woman party leader before she had uttered a single word, you would have rightly thought.

In the end, of course, it was Nicola Sturgeon who had the Birgitte Nyborg Moment. She had the cut-through and the clarity. Even if you disagree with her fundamental ambition for Scottish independence, she made a compelling progressive centre-left argument. But Wood, too, had a breakthrough moment: rounding on Nigel Farage over his comments on HIV and immigration, and I felt guilty for zoning in on her hair.

In politics, appearance is obsessed over as much as policy. Ed Miliband’s face, David Cameron’s weight loss, Sturgeon’s makeover, are all up for debate. MPs seem to be haunted by the phrase that politics is showbiz for ugly people, and go to extraordinary lengths to make themselves look good. Witness the dramatic weight losses of George Osborne through the 5:2 diet and the Prime Minister, who has shed 13lbs since Christmas. Voters notice: when I went to the marginal constituency of Pudsey last week, appearance was a recurring theme on the doorstep. The incumbent Conservative MP “looked like a nice guy”, one said. Another voter brought up Miliband’s looks without my prompting. Taking questions from young voters last month, the Labour leader said he was “never going to win a beauty contest”. Actually, I think Miliband is being too hard on himself. It is a hostile media that casts him as weird-looking, in a twisted version of Snow White’s wicked stepmother’s magic mirror, relentlessly declaring anyone but him is the fairest. In person, he is pleasing to look at.

Politics is unfairly set against the world of entertainment, which unashamedly puts a premium on movie-star good looks. We cannot expect our MPs to look like Aidan Turner or Lily James. Except when they do – such as Chuka Umunna or Luciana Berger – they are derided for being too beautiful, regardless of their political talent. In theory, it should be politicians’ vision, policies and ability to lead that count, not what they look like. In showbiz, of course talent matters, but I cannot get too upset about Aidan Turner being “objectified” by “ladies who lech”. The Poldark actor says he is completely relaxed about being fancied by so many women. He is handsome and he can also act. Why can’t that be celebrated?

The political world is different. We don’t need bodice-rippers to get us to the ballot box. But we do need to get over the pretence that appearance doesn’t matter. If you go for a job interview, you put on your best suit and get a good haircut. The fact that the seven party leaders scrubbed up for their debate last week should be fair game.

Let Nicola Surge-on

The Sturgeon Surge-on from Thursday came before yesterday’s explosive Daily Telegraph story claiming that she thinks Miliband is not prime ministerial material and she’d rather that Cameron remained PM. The Daily Mail yesterday asked if the First Minister was “the most dangerous woman in Britain”. During the referendum campaign, I was pretty sanguine about independence because, as someone who is half-Scottish, I believed that the Scots should decide their own destiny. This didn’t stop me breathing a sigh of relief when Scotland voted “No”. But I would have respected the result if it had been a “Yes”.

Call me old-fashioned, but this is why I think that, if the SNP happens to get 30-plus Westminster seats in May, they will have a right to a say in any power-sharing arrangement in the UK government, however informal their role. Surely they would have a greater mandate to be in power than a Liberal Democrat party on 10 seats trying to cling on to office? That’s democracy.

Hilton’s vision is missed

It is a shame that all votes in the general election will be cast and counted several days before the publication of a book by Cameron’s former adviser Steve Hilton. The driving force behind Cameron’s modernisation project seems anachronistic in a Conservative Party now obsessed with immigration and economic austerity. But his book is timely: it is called More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First.

If the title sounds a little Californian, perhaps that’s because he’s been living there for the past few years with his Google vice-president wife, Rachel Whetstone, and their young family. Yet his thesis – that government, business, education and consumerism have become “too big and distant and industrialised” and the world needs to become more about people – is important. British politics, stuck in a stalemate and stultified by the mainstream parties’ fear of being bold, misses his radical vision.

Brighter Blues

A case in point is immigration. Today, the Bright Blue think-tank, which represents the left of the Tory party, publishes an alternative manifesto on this subject, calling for the net migration target to be scrapped and replaced with a target on gross non-EU migration, excluding, crucially, international students who do so much to boost the British economy. They also call for international students to be allowed to stay in the country for 12 months after their studies finish, rather than the current four months, and an increase in the number of refugees from Syria.

This brand of liberal conservatism is a combination of hard-headed economics, recognising the value that immigration adds to the economy, and compassion. So, will the Conservative leadership listen? I doubt it.

Twitter.com/@janemerrick23

Comments