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Brown's makeover to connect with voters

Hasan Suroor

The British Prime Minister's attempt at the role of emotionally literate politician is part of an elaborate pre-election public relations stunt.

Indian politicians should regard themselves lucky that they are not required to hug babies, humour demanding mums or chat up lonely pensioners to show their “human” side and prove that they are able to “connect” with voters. The touchy-feely, emotionally literate politician is a uniquely western phenomenon. And, in the 24-hour television news culture with the camera following every movement of political leaders their ability to emote in public is becoming as important, if not more, as their policies.

In this age of the perma-tanned, media-savvy politician, someone like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown comes across as a misfit. Faced with his youthful and slick Tory rival David Cameron, he is under intense pressure to get himself a makeover ahead of the coming general elections. It was as part of this makeover project that his media managers, apparently aided and abetted by his wife Sarah (herself an ex-PR executive), persuaded him to give an hour-long television interview recently to former tabloid editor Piers Morgan who is more used to chatting up footballers' girlfriends and size-zero models.

But then that was the whole idea. The trick, according to widely quoted Labour sources, was to “humanise” their man and present him as “your kinda guy” (as his predecessor Tony Blair famously said about himself) who had had his share of pub crawling when at university; enjoyed an occasional fling; and in good time married a woman he had met on a Glasgow flight. “It was love at first flight,” he said in a rare show of humour when asked what attracted him to his future wife.

It was a quip that cynics attributed to some heavy coaching he was put through to prepare him for the interview. Mostly, though, he guffawed his way through the ordeal during which he was asked questions such as whether he ever had a “spliff” as a university student considering that it was the swinging 1960s. Was it true that (what with those long hair and intense looks) girls fell over each other to court him? Was he still in touch with those who wore “Gordon for me” t-shirts and canvassed for him in university elections? And when, where and exactly how did he propose to Sarah (“Did you go down on your knees?”) and did she say “yes” immediately?

In case you really want to know, he proposed to her on a windswept, rain-soaked Scottish beach. No, he didn't go down on his knees but yes, she instantly agreed. To complete the portrait of a “normal” family man (loyal husband, loving father) who understood other families and their concerns, the camera frequently cut to Ms. Brown, strategically seated among the studio audience. So we saw her smile coyly when he talked about their courtship; saw her wipe off a tear from her eyes when he recalled the death of their 10-day-old daughter Jennifer in 2002; and saw her beam beatifically when he praised her for her “strength” etc.

It has been the most discussed/dissected makeover of a modern British political leader since the advent of television; and more in the same vein is expected as elections near. According to media reports, Labour is considering a “masochism” strategy whereby Mr. Brown would be made to “brave the wrath of voters in person … to prove that he understands their concerns”. The idea apparently is to urge him to get real close to voters and show his willingness to be “confronted” by ordinary people. Hypothetically, such a situation could include being grilled by a studio audience agitated about issues such as the state of the economy or public services or Afghanistan (as Mr. Blair was over the Iraq invasion); being collared by an angry patient or staff in a hospital (another memorable Blair moment); or being heckled at the doorstep.

“You earn respect by showing you can take it. It won't be much fun for him but you've got to show you're not afraid,” The Times reported one Cabinet Minister as saying.

The party acknowledges that it is a high-risk strategy because, unlike Mr. Blair who was brilliant at handling such situations, Mr. Brown is known to lose temper easily under pressure. He has just survived a potentially damaging row following explosive claims about his “volcanic” behaviour and allegations that he “bullies” his staff. According to two new books — one by a high-profile Labour-leaning journalist, Andrew Rawnsley, and the other by a former senior Downing Street official, Lance Price — he swears at staff, throws things at them in a fit of anger and, on one occasion, grabbed a senior adviser by his lapels. Junior employees like secretaries and telephone operators are said to be particularly vulnerable to his allegedly “violent” behaviour.

There is concern among his advisers that it would be disastrous if his temper had the better of him during the campaign “encounters” or if he overdid the “emotive” bit. “Tony Blair was good at that…Gordon isn't,” one Brown adviser told a newspaper.

But the party is gambling on the fact that things are already so bad for it (despite the polls tightening, Tories continue to be way ahead of Labour) that they can't get worse. And, who knows, Mr. Brown might just be able to pull it off. As he nearly did on the Morgan show. The reaction to his interview has been surprisingly positive even among those who sneer at the idea of politicians talking about their private lives in public.

“He came out remarkably well though I don't believe private lives should be public property,” said Roy Hattersley, a former deputy leader of the party.

Many of his critics warmed to him after watching the interview because they found his very awkwardness rather “authentic” though a lot of people felt “uncomfortable” seeing him talk about his daughter. They saw it as a “cynical” attempt to exploit his child's death after condemning other politicians for using their children as “props”. Generally, though, the trick appeared to have paid off with at least one post-interview opinion poll showing an improvement in his ratings.

So much so that Mr. Cameron, who had been rather sniffy about the Morgan show and declined to appear on it, has been quick to sign up for a similar celebrity chatshow though his advisers insist that it would be a more “substantial” interview than Mr. Brown's. He has also given an interview to a men's magazine in which he discusses his favourite costume drama, speaks of his fondness for can beer and says how he loves playing dart!

Indeed, the two leaders are engaged in a race to show the electorate who is more “human”.

In another sign of what some see as the logical extension of the trend towards personality-based politics, for the first time leaders of the three parties (Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat) will take part in a series of U.S.-style television debates in the run-up to the elections. Ostensibly, the move is aimed at putting them through a ringer to explain their policies but, in fact, the idea is to focus on their personalities and see how they play out in the glare of television cameras. They will be closely watched for their body language which, it is believed, has been critical in tipping the scales in American presidential debates.

The most widely cited example is the 1992 debate between George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. At one point, Mr. Bush was caught looking at his watch while a voter in the audience was speaking. That was the moment when he was seen to have lost the election as his gesture was taken as a sign of his indifference to voters. In contrast, Mr. Clinton went out of his way to establish rapport with the audience. And with that he not only won the day but also the election.

Labour is hoping that the debates will help Mr. Brown present himself as a leader of “substance and character” against his “shallow” and “all-spin-no-substance” Tory rival. The Tories, of course, believe that their man (younger, more charismatic, more articulate) has a decisive edge.

For all the apparent sniffyness about politicians baring their soul in public, however, there is also a fairly widespread view that people are entitled to know the personal side of those seeking their votes because, in the words of a leading British psychotherapist, it gives them “a much broader range of evidence upon which to judge how strongly our would-be leaders are internally true and authentic”. And, especially, when the voters' dilemma is as acute, as the shifting polls seem to suggest, a glimpse into the rival candidates' “x-factor” might just be what they need to make up their mind.

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