Cleggmania in the age of "audience democracy"

Keith Sutherland
25 April 2010

The enthusiasm of this site for Cleggism is becoming a little embarrassing. Last night the BBC news showed the yellow battle bus standing by in a supermarket car park while the handsome young leader was inside pressing the flesh. Interviewed afterwards, a lady in a wheelchair – who was old enough to know better – giggled that for the first time she would be voting Liberal. She used to support the Conservatives, but she ‘didn’t like David Cameron’s mouth’.

Perhaps Mr. Cameron needs a course of Botox, because only a couple of years ago he was the clear winner in the political beauty contest. A 2008 survey in Grazia showed that many women wanted to see David Cameron as prime minister because they admired his stylish wife and would fancy marrying him. The poll revealed that women look for the same qualities in a prime minister as in a partner or friend. More than half thought the premier also needs ‘charisma and sex appeal’, hence the Cleggmania of the last few weeks.

Alec Douglas-Home lost the 1963 election because, as the TV make-up lady told him, he had a head like a skull and there was nothing she could do to make him look better. Conservative Party leaders belatedly realized this fundamental truth of electoral politics when they stopped picking baldies like Douglas-Home, Hague and Duncan-Smith for leader, and instead asked the House of Commons barber to choose (who immediately pointed out an unknown youth named David Cameron, who happened to have a good head of hair). As Bill Clinton, the possessor of another well-covered bonce, might have said: ‘It’s the tonsorary, stupid.’

A couple of years ago The Times asked research psychologist Anthony Little to run a study during which 800 potential voters chose between the ‘anonymysed’ faces of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and other prominent politicians (the Liberals were excluded, as they were still led by a bald-headed wrinkly). Brown’s face was easily defeated by Cameron’s. But Blair had the most winning face of all:

“We have shown that differences in facial shape can predict who wins or loses in an election. It shows that even for decisions ostensibly based on objective and critical evaluation we are actually following primitive subconscious processes. Our findings suggest that voters may seem to listen to the arguments and join the debates but they will still vote according to a potential leader’s appearance.”

Dr. Little speculated that voters chose Blair because his skin looked healthier. Although committed voters will ignore such superficial cues, this is not the case with ‘floaters’, hence the tendency of all three major parties to select leaders possessing the appropriate visual cues to appeal to the undecided.

Given that women aged twenty-five to forty-five are the UK’s largest floating voter group perhaps the anti-suffragettes had a point. Every night I watch the TV news with my wife and she asks me if I prefer politician x to politician y. I always patiently trot out Tony Benn’s reply – it’s the isshoos that matter – but the following night I get asked the same question. The opinion polls rarely supply the gender breakdown of the support for each party – perhaps it would be too embarrassing. And it’s no coincidence that the vast majority of active participants in websites like this are male.

But leaving my misogyny aside, Anthony Barnett has responded that Clegg’s real value is as a Trojan Horse to introduce constitutional change, primarily proportional representation. It should be noted that the last time the Liberals were in power they were opposed to PR, and now only support it as it is in their electoral interests. And, given the psephological idiocy outlined in this post, I’m unconvinced that a proportional division of votes in the political beauty contest would be an improvement on an outright winner. One can only imagine the catfight backstage if there was no victor on the catwalk.

The age of visual media has led to ‘audience democracy’ in which voting is far less well informed than a TV talent show. Proportional representation or any of the other items in the Power 2010 Top 10 will make little difference. As Bernard Manin has shown, representative democracy is an oxymoron, we need to return to the real thing.

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