The Name of the Game: does appearance matter in Politics?

BY ELLIE LONGMAN-ROOD, North America Editor

The pressure was on as Prime Minister Theresa May walked onto stage to give her address at the 2018 Conservative conference. It needed to unify the party, let alone the country, in the face of struggling Brexit negotiations. Sadly, this is exactly where her problem began. May chose not to walk onstage, but rather to loosely dance onto stage to ABBA’s Dancing Queen. Perhaps not the most appropriate or professional choice. Yet, once her speech got into full swing the tone quickly changed, it was a mixture of a heartfelt announcement of government funding to cancer care, to a firm position on national security concerning Russia, clearly in her comfort zone as a former Home Secretary. Nonetheless, discussions the days following the conference focussed on her musical entrance and not her politics.

This entrance laid the foundation to the opening theme of her speech; self-deprecation. It was not necessarily a bad technique to touch upon this. In fact, it would’ve been more awkward to neglect it. The 2017 Conservative conference set incredibly low standards for this year. All May had to do was make it through it the speech without a coughing fit, her backdrop falling down, or being handed a P45 mid-speech and it could’ve been deemed a success. More to the point, the dust had certainly settled from last year. She did not have to deliver a speech right after a summer break prior to losing a majority in a snap election. Therefore, ignoring last years record entirely would have been a mistake. Perhaps this is why her opening remarks of “you’ll have to excuse me if I cough during this speech, I’ve been up all night supergluing the backdrop” were so well received. This beginning to her speech did do her favours. It made her appear more human and relatable. A feature that had seemingly been erased from her early premiership and replaced with the “Maybot” in the election campaign.

Yet, this appears to have been to May’s determent. Her address was, arguably, the best she has spoken recently. To put it quite bluntly, this has been a moment that the party and its supporters have been waiting for far too long. However, the other features of her address appear to have been lost under the wake of this choice of arrival. The speech addressed a need for party unity. An issue that has been hot in the media in the last few months. The role of Prime Minister is certainly a job where at the end of the day you must stand alone. Never has this been more real for May than in the last few months. Every announcement of Brexit news was often met with opposition from within the party. At the conference, she stood up and declared, enough. It was time to put petty differences aside and to finally focus on the areas of agreement, if for no other reason than because the taxpayers deserve more than this. The moment where May truly got into her stride was while speaking on matters of national security. In addressing Labour, and in particular Jeremy Corbyn’s weak stance on the attacks in Salisbury, she drew on historical examples of the current Labour party’s predecessors. “Would Jim Callaghan, who served in the Royal Navy, have asked the Russian government to confirm the findings of our own intelligence agencies?”. Obviously a rhetorical question, but her deliverance of it left us in no uncertainty that May’s answer was no. Yet, all this fell on death ears in the news cycle.

Once we add all this up it creates an issue. Has image overtaken the value of content in politics? If the 1980’s was the birth of globalisation, the current decade has given way for the rise of social media. This has meant that we live in a world where politicians are at equal risk of losing headway over their appearance as well as for their politics. While political television dramas are often idealistic compared to real life. I cannot help but be reminded of a scene from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. A senior White House aide had left himself open to personal scandal, and in his defence, he claimed they ought to “spend a little less time looking good, and a little more time being good”. The defence was scoffed at. But, nearly a decade after the episode aired, the line couldn’t be more relevant.

Social media and the internet has changed the game of politics. It seems, in contemporary politics, there is just as must effort into how one looks compared to what one stands for. Parliament has become a popularity contest, where MP’s aim to please the media, in order to not become its next victim. Essentially meaning that we have forced our elected officials to spend their days walking on eggshells. It is not only May that has been a victim of this. It is an issue that has affected the whole political spectrum. In the 2017 snap election, Diane Abbot was hugely targeted. Whether you agree with her politics or not, the media coverage every time she made a public address was personal, cruel, but more importantly didn’t often cover the objections to her politics. Appearance certainly does matter in politics today. We can identify the source of this trend; the rise of fast and widespread media. This development brought so many promises, it is incredibly saddening if we let it decrease the value of real political coverage as a consequence. May left herself unnecessarily open to criticism from her entrance to her address at the party conference. However, it is paramount that we base our issues in the content of the speech, not in anything else. If we do not, the quality of political debate in our hallowed halls of parliament will only decrease further. This is not a price as a nation we should be prepared to pay.

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