12 January 2010

Vowels, voters and the voice of authenticity: the leadership case for Andy Burnham

You might have thought that my post the other day about Andy Burnham declaring his candidacy for the Labour Party leadership was just a tongue-in-cheek exercise. But the more I think about it, the more I think he would be the party's best bet once Brown has gone.

The likes of Straw, Harman, Darling and Johnson might have been OK as caretakers if Brown had been deposed. But, assuming they lose the election, the Labour torch will surely have to be passed on to the next generation.

In various other posts, I've stressed the importance of British party leaders having an elusive appeal that extends beyond those who normally vote for their party. Thatcher and Blair had it, as did Jo Grimond and Paddy Ashdown for the Liberals, but Gordon Brown doesn't have it (for more on which, see HERE & HERE).

Clinging on to the core vote

Since the advent of 'New Labour', the party's main marketing problem has been how to bring middle class voters on board whilst, at the same time, holding on to trades unionists and the 'core vote'.

Blair's public school and Oxford credentials, coupled with his 'natural charm', were arguably critical in winning over enough Tory voters to see him through three election victories.

But he was also very lucky (and/or shrewd) to have had a supporting chorus of Northern vowel sounds from David Blunkett and John Prescott, senior ministers who sounded like (and appealed to) large swathes of the party's core vote.

Bourgeois intruders in the Labour heartlands

Like Tony Blair, potential leadership candidates such as the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls, not to mention Yvette Cooper (AKA Mrs Balls), all come from highly educated middle class backgrounds - with its potential appeal to waivering Tories (if there still are any).

Something else they also have in common with Blair is that they too were parachuted into safe Northern constituencies that had traditionally always selected and returned trades unionists as their MPs.

But, unlike Blair, they're a bit short on Blunkets and Prescotts to boost the party's appeal to its core voters - with one notable exception:

Andy Burnham, BA (Cambridge): a Labour lad from Lancashire

In marked contrast with the other likely contenders in the Labour leadership stakes, Burnham is the MP for his home town - rather than for somewhere he'd never been to or heard of until being awarded a safe seat by the party's high command.

What's more, his years in the South haven't completely eliminated the authentic Northern vowel sounds that make him sound like 'one of us' to Labour's core vote - whilst his Oxbridge education gives him the middle class credentials of a Thatcher, Blair or Cameron.

Add to that the fact that I've seen commentators refer to him as 'good looking' (*), and have never heard anyone who knows him say anything other than what a nice chap he is - and he may have the Blair 'charm' factor too.

Too nice?

So the main question about him looks like being whether he's too nice to bite the bullet hard enough to go for it, win and do the dirty deeds that will have to be done to put the New Labour show back on the road.

*P.S. Since writing this, my attention has been drawn to this interview with LibDem M.P. Lynne Featherstone, who came second to Mr Burnham in a 'most fanciable M.P.' poll - and who describes him here as "drop dead gorgeous":




4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Trouble is Burnham is another chinless wonder, with no real experience outside politics. My bet is that the Blair-like qualities will fall out of fashion. Cameron will win, but he won't last long. The fashion will change and we'll long for some characters of substance. My feeling is that none of the Party leaders are up to the job. I'd prefer Ken Clarke or Vince Cable to be in charge.

Max Atkinson said...

Anon: His chin looks OK to me, but I agree there's the problem of his never having had a proper job outside politics, but I don't think Ken Clarke (or Gordon Brown) did either. But that's now the case with all the other party's leaders (and aspiring leaders). Vince Cable is one of the few surviving MPs who has done something else, which is not unrelated to why he's so widely admired (see http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/12/dr-cables-medical-diagnosis-of-our.html)

Which brings us back to the question of who's the most promising of Labour's mediocre bunch of candidates. Burnham's main weakness is that he's not a brilliant speechmaker, but (a) neither are any of his competitors and (b) speeches seem to have become so unimportant in British politics that it maybe doesn't matter any more (see also http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2010/01/do-interviews-ever-deliver-anything-but.html).

alastair said...

The real problem with our politicians of ALL parties is that few of them are NUMERATE - they are all tend to be highly LITERATE but NOT NUMERATE.

That means that don't understand such diverse things as "pensions" or the absurdity of "45 minutes" in the WMD debate.

Andy Burnham was put into the Treasury having failed "O Level" maths.

Max Atkinson said...

Alistair: Interesting point that hadn't occurred to me before. Gordon Brown is arguably an exception, as his budget speeches were so full of (big) numbers that they used to leave me dazed and baffled - on which you might like to inspect a short video on an earlier post in which he manages to get nine numbers into one minute: http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/07/how-many-numbers-can-you-get-into.html

Also, I can't think of any great communicators who routinely bombarded their audiences with lots of numbers. And, interestingly, some speakers who are comfortable with numbers often use imagery to get their points across, e.g. the governor of the Bank of England (http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/06/imagery-worthy-of-obama-in-speech-by.html), Vince Cable (http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/12/dr-cables-medical-diagnosis-of-our.html) and Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz (http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/12/financial-regulators-were-party-poopers.html}.