YOU only have to listen to Hillary Clinton rubbishing Obama’s statement about the unemployed, dispossessed and generally miserable tending to get consolation from their churches and their guns, to understand that you never, ever insult the voters. They are infinitely wise, thoughtful and responsible. OK? OK.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the reality, which is that voters vote for the oddest, least predictable reasons, including the desire to stick it to the present incumbents, regardless of the consequences. Regardless of the possibility that the replacements could be worse. This is the Jesse “The Body” Ventura Syndrome: where the electorate suddenly gets so fed up that it would elect a gormless, if entertaining, ex-wrestler to govern an American state, even though the electorate KNOWS — as they did with Ventura — that if he had two brain cells, which was questionable, they were the kind of brain cells applicable to low comedy rather than state government.
Politicians and political advisors hate the Jesse “The Body” Ventura Syndrome.
Politicians hate it because, having worked 18 hour days, mastered complex systems, taken brickbats from the media, knocked on doors and done their energetic best to deliver on promises made, they can’t bear the possibility that voters would turf them out in favour of a moron with a high profile.
Political advisors hate it because they’re convinced that if politicians would just obey orders, they’d be great leaders. Each political advisor wants their particular politician to wear what they’re told to wear, be well-groomed, gaffe-free, policy-driven. Oh, and “disciplined.” Disciplined, to a political advisor, means the politician follows instructions — hence the growing belief that Boris beat Ken because he obeyed the orders of an Australian political guru.
He didn’t. He beat Ken because the electorate was bored and he was fun. He beat Ken because the electorate was fed up of worthy newspapers like the Guardian telling them that Boris is racist (which he is), offensive to gay people (which he is), bonks women other than his wife (which he does) and lies about it (which he has). He beat Ken because he was easy to remember (which he is, given the straw hair and the bike) apologised a lot (which he has to), and seemed harmless (which he isn’t).
All over Britain, the electorate wanted to stick it to the Labour Party. Because they hated how the new Labour dream had been sold to them and then sold off at a discount. Because they hated the awful dribbling end to which Tony Blair’s premiership came, with multi-million pound contracts for books and speeches and some vague international job. Because they were fearful, as they watched house prices dip for the first time in years. Because Gordon Brown had leaked like a good thing while he was Blair’s number two, selling himself as the real guy, and then turned out to be a dithering disappointment. But, above all, because they were bored.
It didn’t help that Brown turned out to have the charisma of a concrete block. Or that he first talked of a snap election and then backed away from it. It very definitely didn’t help that he went to the United States and publicly backed George W. Bush, at a time when Bush’s own people rate him the most unpopular president since polling began. Tethering yourself to an anchor is not good for keeping yourself afloat, and Dubya is the definitive anchor.
Or, to switch metaphors, while most American presidents necessarily become lame ducks when the race is on to select their successor, Dubya has the unique distinction of being a legless duck who can’t, currently, put a webbed foot under himself. For Brown to link himself with such a disaster argues either a death wish or a deficit in simple commonsense.
Unless Boris has hidden strengths — and, since very little about Boris is hidden, strength-revelation will be a hell of a surprise — the end result of this confluence of factors will be disastrous for London. And, incidentally, for the London Irish. Norah Casey, the brain box who owns and runs Harmonia Publications, the biggest magazine publisher in this country, talks, in the recently-published KPMG book, “That’ll Never Work…” about her experience with Ken Livingstone, starting in the late 80s, when she had a contentious first meeting with him in public.
“He was in the middle of some thing about how great he was and I said, ‘Yeah, we’ve all heard that. What are you going to do for the Irish in London, come on, give us some specifics?’” she recalls. “So he kind of looked at me as though he was going to kill me and he said, ‘OK, I’m going to have the biggest St Patrick’s Day Festival that anybody has ever seen. It will rival New York.’”
This was at a time when Irish people living in London kept their heads down, and the nearest to a Paddy’s Day parade was a sad small procession in Whitehall being pelted with eggs. Livingstone hauled in the argumentative Casey to run the promised parade, which drew 60,000 people to Trafalgar Square by lunchtime.
“Almost everybody I know in London says it was the most incredible thing,” Casey says. “We got wall-to-wall coverage — all positive — in the media.”
Ken Livingstone took that transformative step, and a lot more besides. Now, he’s history. And Gordon Brown, who has — despite all the years of covert promise that he would do much better than his boss if the superficial sound-bite spouter would just get out of his way — is in serious danger of becoming the same kind of history.
Moving closer to home, it has to be said that, on the face of it, Brian Cowen has much in common with Gordon Brown. He’s been in the shadow of a media-accessible, warm and cuddly prime minister for many years. He’s been Minister for Finance. He’s been regarded as the real brains of the ruling party. He takes over at a time when the public has a coppery taste in its mouth, courtesy of the tribunals, when Fianna Fáil’s major public figures, no matter how hard they work and no matter how much they remind us of their achievements, carry a high boredom factor. He faces local elections in the not-too-distant future. He could become the undertaker to the celtic tiger, just as Brown is undertaker to new Labour.
He does not, however, share the Brown legacy of briefing against his leader. Cowen doesn’t do that. Never has. He also has the inestimable advantage of the proportional representation system, which blunts the edges of any electoral wish to stick it to the incumbents. PR allows spread bets. It allows voters to smack the establishment but simultaneously give it consolation prizes.
Cowen’s greatest advantage, however, is that the opposition parties are scared of putting their foot in their mouth, fearful of association with each other and concentrated on being good at (reactive) opposition.
They don’t have to grow a Boris. But they do have to grow something else that begins with B. Quickly.
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