Monday, 11 June 2007

Politicians as Pop Stars - Two Examples

With the leadership of the Labour Party and by default, the premiership of the UK decided, the competition now is who is to be deputy-leader and it is assumed Deputy-Prime Minister (assuming Gordon Brown sticks with Blair's system, he is under no obligation to do so). One of the candidates Hilary Benn (a man, Hilary used to be a man's name, but like Lesley and Robin even, has increasingly become a woman's name in the past 40-50 years) has said he wants to be deputy leader of the party but not the other roles likely to go with it. Other candidates such as Peter Hain and Harriet Harman have not declared a position on that.

What strikes me about these candidates, (and all of them are likely to end up with senior posts in the Brown Cabinet and I would put Benn at the Foreign Office and Harman as Home Secretary, Hain could probably do either, and we seem to be lacking a candidate for Chancellor of the Exchequer) is that aside possibly from Hain, they all look very ordinary. Brown himself can hardly be described as attractive; Benn looks like a grammar school teacher from the 1950s, Harman a comprehensive school teacher from the 1970s. They look like people you could meet in the street and they may, as John Major did, capture votes because of that. As Major successfully followed the big personality of Thatcher, maybe it is Brown's more down-to-Earth approach that appeals after the bustle of Blair. I welcome this development as I feel it counteracts the tendency for senior politicians to appear like celebrities. Blair was particularly prone to this. His youth, his style, his history of playing in a band was added to by inviting the leading lights of Brit culture to Downing Street and even this year appearing on television with popular comedian Catherine Tate, with Blair doing one of her characters, for the benefit of charity. To some extent he was a man of his time, with the sound-bite culture becoming dominant in politics across the World. Funnily enough too, he looks like George Bush's cool friend and if it was possible added the US President some credibility.

So what are the problems with premier as pop star? Well, pop stars love themselves. They have to in order to be able to perform in the front of thousands. They surround themselves with sycophants and people who do their bidding. In these days of the 'celebocracy' when most people can name the current occupants of the 'Big Brother' house more easily than members of the Cabinet, it is not surprising that politicians behave the same. For many pop stars, though, their lifestyles and their day-to-day behaviour are more important than the occasions on which they perform. More column space online and in magazines, is spent on who they marry, go out with, etc. rather than their actual music. This is the danger for the politicians themselves who behave this way. One can look back over Blair's career and probably remember more about his various suits and whose island he holidayed on than you can about his policies. This is why the Blair years seem light on policy. There have, as I have noted before, been some good ones, but not nearly enough for 10 years in office with huge majorities. I accept that Blair has been a bit of a prisoner of his times and how politics are handled, but I feel it is an approach he loves and has added to greatly.

Now I turn to my other example: Tony Benn; Hilary Benn's father. He was a Labour MP from 1950-2001 and served as Postmaster General, Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for Industry and Secretary of State for Energy under the Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-9. Though Benn is represented as shifting towards the left in the late 1970s, many of his policies such as economic planning, the involvement of all sides of industry in decision making and increased democracy were actually all Labour policies from the 1940s that became marginalised as Labour dropped Keynesian economics from 1976 onwards. However, it was convenient for the media to present him as some kind of crypto-Communist, a method of attack they used on Labour right through the 1980s. Benn still follows the same lines of policy. On Europe he has come to accept the European Union, though he presses for it to be made more democratic; its parliament, the only directly elected part has few powers and most policies are made by the Council of Ministers, a club of prime ministers from each of the member states, who tend to let the blame fall on other parts of the EU.

Why do I put Benn alongside Blair in this particular post? Benn has been an ardent campaigner against the war in Iraq and the UK's close links with the USA, in total contrast to Blair. The reason is because of his media life. He has produced seven volumes of diaries. Interestingly in 2003 working with Charles Bailey he had some of his speeches set to dance music and you can buy CDs of audiobooks. He also went on tour around the UK, probably the most unusual, low-key show you will have seen, him sitting on stage drinking tea (he has one cup every hour) talking about his views on current politics to packed audiences, answering their questions and signing books and CDs. What was heartening about this is that it harked back to an earlier age when people engaged much more closely with their politicians and could challenge them without merely being dismissed as irrelevant or inappropriate. I have seen Blair do televised audience shows but you always feel they are very managed.

Blair, then, is the stadium rocker, for whom image is everything and all publicity is carefully controlled and only authorised merchandise is permitted. For him the music is less important than the image. Benn is the solo guitarist you see in the pub, selling some of his CDs after the performance. He does not care what you think of his appearance, he may look like your grandad, though he dresses smartly it is not showy garb. I would argue that his songs are worthwhile listening to if you want your brain stimulated rather than simply to be awed by the glamour. I just hope we find more pub performers in the next government and fewer stadium acts; the UK will be better for it.

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