Politics: ‘dressing smartly’ may not be enough anymore

by | 6 Oct 2021

We may see Boris Johnstone as a buffoon - but that doesn't mean everyone agrees with us, or that he's not getting things done...

Now that Boris Johnstone has done his conference speech, there is probably something on which ‘we’ can all agree – he’s a bumbling, incompetent fool (or other insults to that effect). And by ‘we’ I mean me, you and everyone you’ve not blocked on social media.

But before you jump too deep into your convictions, can I encourage you to do a little thought experiment. Try for a second (if you can) to drop your own political views and do a little role play. Try to imagine first being a liberally-minded Democrat in the US and now imagine being a right wing Republican.

Then in each of these roles, ask yourself who delivered for you, President Obama for the Democrat or President Trump for the Republican?

Even some of Obama’s biggest fans now accept that he really doesn’t have much of a tangible legacy from two terms in office. Yes he ‘restored dignity’ and did a lot to repair the global perception of America, and there’s the Affordable Care Act. But actual, identifiable change in the politics or economy of America? There his achievements are sparse.

But look at Trump, without doubt a narcissistic idiot with terrible judgement and appalling impulse control. And yet he leaves a stacked Supreme Court and a litany of (to me) insidious domestic policies and reforms which are not proving easy to undo. For a right-wing Republican this means a lot of big wins.

The failure to understand why Trump’s approval ratings and Boris Johnstone’s poll lead didn’t collapse into sharp negatives stem from judging other people’s performance based on your own political inclinations. It caused enormous cognitive dissonance for America’s centrist commentator set for four years and is now doing the same for ours.

You can trace this right back to the birth of Trumpism. The most important thing I read about the impulses that pushed former low-income Democrat voters into his corner was in a piece by the Guardian’s Gary Younge (apologies, I’ve been looking but I can’t find the specific article but all his pieces on this subject are worth reading if you have time).

He was interviewing people (without judgement) in Rust Belt cities. Interviewing one person he asked him why he voted Trump and the person replied ‘he’s promised to reopen the coal mines here’. Younge asked the man if he believed him and his reply is really instructive.

He said ‘no, of course not, he’s clearly lying – but at least he took the time to lie to me and my community. Hilary Clinton doesn’t even care enough about us to lie to us.’

Boris Johnstone may fail the Keir Starmer test of ‘does he look like the kind of person political insiders think should be running a government’ but it is much less clear that he is failing the test of ‘is he doing things I want him to do?’ for many people.

Given the choice between definitely losing in a shirt and tie and having a chance of winning by wearing a monkey outfit, the politician will chose to lose

I know, I know, you’re screaming at me ‘but what about the mess he’s making of Brexit?’. Sure, but the outcomes we’re seeing are the inevitable outcomes of Brexit. We are increasing sovereignty and generating a labour supply shortage which is increasing wages at the price of what we’ve come to expect as ‘just-in-time trade efficiency’.

But it’s worth acknowledging that by saying ‘Brexit is going badly’ what you’re really mean is that ‘Brexit is going as expected and I never wanted that’. For a Brexiter it looks different. Those from a lower income seem to see two days of queuing for petrol as a price worth paying for their first period of rising wages.

And the ones more driven by English identity and anti-immigration sentiment don’t seem to be anywhere near the point at which they are regretting their decision. Everyone knows it should have been handled better, but getting something done imperfectly still beats not getting it done.

There is description of the problem with politicians in something Dominic Cummings wrote. I am paraphrasing but he wrote ‘a politician would rather lose conventionally than win unconventionally’. Given the choice between definitely losing in a power suit and having a chance of winning by wearing a monkey outfit, the politician will chose to lose.

It’s true; politics is policed by a professional commentator class and they have a very clear sense of what ‘a proper politician’ is. And on the whole it is measured much more in terms of style than substance. Like any profession, it is very hard to cope psychologically without the respect of your peers. A list of genuine achievements doesn’t overcome the psychological impact of being mocked by people whose respect you want.

In truth, this is a disaster for our politics. Boris Johnstone (and in a different way Jeremy Corbyn) stand out from almost every other politician of the modern era by seeming not to care too much about the views of the commentator class. I’m sure they do, but it doesn’t seem to change how they go about their business. The rest fade into the memory. I mean, can you summon up a mental picture of Stephen Crabb or Estelle Morris or Chris Huhne?

This ‘depoliticalisation of politics’ has defined our era, often replacing proper analysis of what is going on in government with superficial admiration for those who fit into the conveyor-belt mould of ‘a professional politician’.

in Scotland we have an immaculately turned-out Cabinet but still the disasters come thick and fast

It has consequences. Starmer seems convinced he can beat Johnstone by reiterating that Johnstone ‘isn’t really the right kind of person to run a government’, assuming this to be self-evident to all. The indy movement seems just to assume that the implosion of the Johnstone administration is imminent and inevitable and will sort out our problems.

But what if people are actually more interested in what Johnstone is changing than how he is changing it? Like Trump he may be lying when he says he wants to raise the wages of ordinary workers, but he takes time out his day to say it. Starmer is trying to signal the need for wage restraint, because ‘that’s what proper politicians do’.

If the Overton Window describes a supposedly narrow window of what is considered ‘acceptable policy’ in political debate, the window of what is considered to be ‘an acceptable politician’ seems even narrower. If you close your eyes you know exactly what that looks like – the clothes, the hairdo, what they claim to watch on TV, where they’re expected to go on their holidays.

We dismiss those who are outside that window as ‘not appropriate for politics’. But outside the bubble of people who read political blogs, it is increasingly clear that not everyone is bought into the ‘ironed shirt first, what you actually do second’ way of thinking.

After all, in Scotland we have an immaculately turned-out Cabinet but still the disasters come thick and fast. And was there ever a politician more wholly tuned into the expectations of ‘what a senior politicians should be’ than our First Minister? – and yet it’s not easy to identify a specific accomplishment from seven years of leading the nation.

As I suggested after the Labour conference, there appears to be a growing distance between politics and politicians. I fear we are judging Boris Johnstone from the politicians’ vantage point and not from that of politics. It blinds us to why he seems to remain firmly in control. And Boris Johnstone does currently seem to be firmly in control.

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