29th February 2016
The Number 10 Doorstep Test
Do RSPB members think everybody is a bird watcher? Do philatelists think everybody collects stamps? Do members of political parties think everybody is as interested in politics as they are? Of course not.
During my travels on buses, trains and the tube in London I have yet to overhear a single conversation about the ins and outs, pros and cons, machinations of Cameron’s EU membership negotiations. It is almost as if the world of the BBC News is totally divorced from the world people actually live in. The reality is that, like Christmas, the EU referendum will only focus our minds when it is literally upon us. That is the case with politics in general. We take it seriously when we need to and that is for about 2 weeks every 5 years.
In my experience there are three kinds of voters: the lazy (‘all politicians are the same… there is nothing between them… and they are only in it for themselves’); the committed (those that vote for the same party every time even if the candidate was a one-eyed one-legged monkey); and finally, the serious (those who take where they place their vote seriously and do a bit of research and give the matter some thought).
I doubt if few even in the final group really know the date for the EU referendum (June 23rd 2016) and certainly they are not all familiar with differences of opinion within the Tory party or the apparent daily travails of Jeremy Corbyn over every issue.
What people see on the television, social media or hear on the radio greatly influences how they perceive politicians and therefore what they stand for. I predict Corbyn will become haunted by his apparent obfuscation over “shoot to kill” and armed terrorists. He may have had a point but in the cruel, instant world of TV news the damage was done. Cameron has to worry less about how he is perceived as he will be off to a world of country suppers in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the runners and riders lining up to replace him are making every effort to avoid media gaffs that can be played back time and time again.
The reality is that presentation and appearance, if not everything, are damned important. When I was training to be a manager I was often told “you only get one opportunity to make a first impression” and “first impressions count for everything”.
Cameron knows this. He always wears a clean, bright white shirt, duly ironed to remove package creases no doubt. The clean-cut dark blue suit, the immaculate hair and ready, easy words. To me he is a second hand car salesman (with apologies to those in the motor trade) but he is rather good at it. That is what the TV viewer sees and likes enough to trust him to be prime minister. He may be as shallow as a cucumber slice but he comes over as sincere and interested.
Blair and Thatcher understood the importance of first impressions and presentation but the first UK politician to truly grasp this in the TV age was Harold Wilson. Those of us of a certain age still recall his “white hot technology” speech.
So what of Jeremy Corbyn? The new politics appears to demand a tie-less shirt with t-shirt and ill-fitting brown suit, no sound bites and the general appearance of a secondary school geography teacher. Corbyn likes to look serious and reflective. Sadly, it can come over as shifty and evasive. With some justification he appears to reject the media song and dance but again, sadly, it matters to voters. Corbyn may be viewed as nice but I was struck by some of the interviews with Labour voters after the Oldham by-election when words like ‘weak’, ‘doesn’t look like a leader’ and ‘not patriotic enough’ were used. If you search social media outside the Corbyn bubble these are not descriptions that are hard to find. The bottom line is that for all his virtues Corbyn does not sound or look like a leader. That is understandable in a way as he has had no preparation or training for the role. He has never run an organisation, worked for anybody other than a trade union or indeed has ever shown the slightest inclination to be leader of anything beyond a protest march.
It is a pity that during the endless campaign for the new leader more attention was not given to the skills, training and experience needed to fulfil the role. Perhaps there should have been interview boards, psychometric tests and trial media interviews in front of assessors. How would each candidate have run a large multi-million pound organisation with many employees and a customer base of over 9 million voters? A skills profile would have been good. Making a good speech is a skill which requires training and practice.
Labour would have been well-advised to have looked across the Atlantic. No, not to Donald Trump in the USA but to Justin Trudeau in Canada. He was elected leader of their Liberal party in 2013. He was branded a no-hoper with just a famous name to trade on. Trudeau began to dress like a leader – smart appearance, properly cut suit and hair, began appearing in places leaders go. He had been around leaders and opinion formers all his life and put that learning to good use. He put together a progressive package of measures that appealed to moderate Canadians and stormed from an also-ran in third place to gain the greatest number of seats ever in a Canadian Federal election in 2015. He looked and sounded like somebody who should reside in Sussex Drive, Ottawa. He passed the Sussex Drive doorstep test. Trudeau is 44 years old.
Does Corbyn look and sound like somebody who should live in 10 Downing Street? Sadly not. Before you will be listened to you have to look the part. Corbyn usually looks as if he has just slipped out of the betting shop. He clearly fails the 10 Downing Street doorstep test. He just does not look like a Prime Minister in waiting and this is important to voters.
By Keith Nieland