Back in the pre-deregulated broadcasting era, British TV was awash with home-grown beauty contests, not just the Miss United Kingdom finale, but the qualifying tournament as well, which was spread over all the old regional ITV companies. Every now again, footage is excavated for cheap laughs on a clips show and we get to see the likes of Fred Dineage or Bob Warman ogling a local lass with a Farrah Fawcett haircut from Miss Yorkshire Television 1977. The nature of television has certainly changed since then, as has the nature of the beauty contest.
It’s inevitable that at some point over the next six months we will be treated to a modern televised beauty contest in which the contenders for both the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaderships will restrict themselves to evening-dress and avoid the swimsuit interlude (no bad thing, considering). In theory, they will be judged on the feasibility of their plans for dragging their respective parties out of the black hole the electorate condemned them to last week; but just as much will depend on how they are able to project those plans to both public and party faithful. From JFK to Obama and from Wilson to Cameron, image has been as crucial a factor in choosing a political leader as any showpiece policy for over half-a-century. Ed Miliband’s inability to capitulate to the visual demands of the media was as much to blame for his spectacular failure as any of his set-in-stone pledges.
Yes, it’s a ridiculously shallow way to judge anyone’s merits, especially when so many political colossi of the past never had to contend with it. How would Robert Walpole have come across on TV, for example? Probably as a clean-shaven Brian Blessed in a periwig. What about Gladstone? A dour, morose Victorian version of Adrian Chiles, perhaps; dandified Disraeli would no doubt have appeared as theatrical and camp as Graham Norton by today’s standards. Even those captured on film before the widespread availability of TV, such as Clement Attlee, seem strangely uncharismatic in person; nobody now would be that surprised if an on-screen caption declared him to be a provincial bank-manager. Attlee was fortunate he was the last Prime Minister who never really had to take excessive scrutiny of his image into account. In 2015, any potential PM worth his parliamentary expenses has no choice but to pay as much attention to the way he looks, dresses and speaks as the presenter of a breakfast TV show, so how do the expected crop of contenders come across on television?
The problem for both parties is that there are no outstanding preordained successors to Miliband and Clegg; there’s no Thatcher or Heseltine waiting in the wings to seize power, just a collection of leftovers from past administrations and faceless newcomers few outside of the party machine have even heard of. The Labour list seems to bear this out.
The main names in the frame begin with the woman whose childcare arrangements have received an unexpected boost in the past few days, Yvette Cooper. Like many a female MP, her appearance implies she’d be more at home reading a regional news bulletin, owning that curiously intimidating short haircut many women of a certain age and social demographic adopt when they want to be taken seriously; and this Blairite veteran has evidently been a student of Harman the High Priestess, possessing the same off-putting, patronising, lecturing, hectoring tone that provokes a frantic hunt for the remote control whenever she opens her mouth on TV. The fact that she’s a woman doesn’t necessarily mean she’d be Labour’s answer to Nicola Sturgeon; besides, she’s too associated with the failures of the recent past to be a realistic success in the job.
Next up is someone I’d call a dark horse were I not worried about being accused of racism – Chuka Umunna; the temptation to say ‘Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan’ when pronouncing his name is one I should be grownup enough to resist; but I can’t help it. Anyway, if Yvette Cooper’s novelty selling-point is her vagina, Umunna’s is his skin colour. The problem is he doesn’t really convince as a brother from ‘the hood’, more a somewhat slimy, smarmy City executive or a crap villain from a Timothy Dalton Bond movie. Of course, he’d be the ideal candidate for the metropolitan clique that seems to run the Labour party these days, ticking all the required boxes. But I can’t see him charming the electorate beyond the borders of the capital.
The last recognisable name on the Labour list is Andy Burnham, the former Health Secretary who ran for the party leadership in 2010 and finished fourth out of five. His novelty selling-point is the trace of a Northern accent, suggesting he might be close to being ‘an ordinary person’. His route to the front bench was a fairly routine one for the career politician, however, and despite the fact that he’s probably one of the least nauseating Labour people Burnham does have a faint look of having been sculpted by Gerry Anderson.
Then we come to the ‘Who?’ section, which features Liz Kendall and Dan Jarvis. The former is apparently an-ex Harman SPAD, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a new dawn; the latter is a far more intriguing prospect, though. Dan Jarvis is a former Army Officer who served in Iraq; now that’s something you could never imagine the other contenders having on their CV, and how genuinely novel would it be to have a party leader with a back-story outside of the SPAD circuit? Unfortunately, he already appears to have ruled himself out, which has no doubt provoked a huge sigh of relief over at Central Office.
So, that’s Labour done with; but what of the poor old Lib Dems, once more reduced to the single-figure cult they were prior to their marriage with the SDP? With Nick Clegg having retained his seat, that leaves just seven other potential leaders, few of whom could be called household names. Perhaps the most recognisable is Tim Farron, who provided a rare moment of Lib Dem cheer on Election night, holding his seat with a majority of 8,949. Former President of the party, Farron comes across as a straight-talking Northerner and looks like someone who perhaps occasionally eats beans-on-toast in front of the TV in his vest and underpants. Chances are he’s the one who’ll win the vote.
The rest of them provoke shoulder-shrugging indifference, to be honest. In terms of image, Norman Lamb could be a Harley Street surgeon on the cusp of retirement; Alistair Carmichael resembles a League One football manager who once played centre-half for Partick Thistle; and Tom Brake looks like he should be playing bass in a Jam tribute band. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the other three Lib Dem MPs, so unless one of them resembles Aidan Turner, I doubt they’ll be participating in their party’s beauty contest.
So, while the same old faces continue to run the country, the only opposition this side of Hadrian’s Wall has a summer of watching wannabes parade up and down to look forward to. And whoever emerges from the anticipated contestants as a winner will have one hell of a job on his or her hands. Their ambition will have to stretch a little further than working with children and animals.