An important but elusive asset for British political party leaders

Yesterday’s video clip of Jo Grimond, under whose leadership the Liberals doubled their number of MPs from ‘hardly any’ to ‘a few’, reminded me of an important but all too rare asset for party leaders in a country where elections are decided by a few floating voters.

Although my mother was a Tory, she was by no means the only one I knew who liked Jo Grimond and regarded him as a 'thoroughly good egg.'

Thousands of others from different parties thought much the same of Margaret Thatcher, Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair, all of whom enjoyed high levels of respect, however grudging, from voters who were not their party’s ‘natural’ supporters.

When Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair, I started trying out this idea that some politicians have an indefinable appeal to voters across party lines on (an admittedly non-random sample of) people – and was amazed to discover how many ‘natural’ Tories said things like “I liked Blair and was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t feel the same about Brown. "

Which brings me to another question prompted by yesterday’s vintage interview, namely which other party leaders have had the benefit of the ‘je ne sais quoi’ factor enjoyed by Grimond, Thatcher, Ashdown and Blair?

I don’t think Heath, Callaghan, Major, Kinnock, Smith, Kennedy or Campbell had it (Vince Cable almost certainly has it, but can't be counted because he was only a temporary leader).

Nor, as far as I can see, do I think that any of the three party leaders currently getting up steam for the next election have it either.

But it would be interesting to know whether others have the same impression - and, if so, why?


Neil Stockley said...

It may have something to do with a sense of sincerity, courage, conviction and strength combining together to give an impression of authenticity and trustworthiness.

Thatcher, Blair and Ashdown were all different from their parties in their views (especially Thatcher and Blair), personas and backgrounds. They all did things to change their parties and the way voters saw them.

They all embodied stories that people could latch on to and so understand their political views – Thatcher the grocer’s daughter who worked all hours, Blair the metropolitan family “new” man who took on his “old” party and won, Ashdown the soldier and international man of action.

Brian Jenner said...

Ken Clarke has it and I think the Conservative Party fortunes would have been very different if he had become leader. People seem to like Cameron from outside his party, but lots of people really dislike Brown, I don't know why.

Max Atkinson said...

I'd go along with both these comments, and agree that Ken Clarke has it too.

That's why I could never understand why the Tories kept picking the wrong person at the wrong time: Major when they could/should have had Hestletine, Hague when they could/ should have had had Clarke and Duncan Smith when they could/should have had Portillo (who I also thought had it).

But we can't really count Clarke, Portillo or Cable in this exercise, as none of them got the top job.

As for why people don't much like Brown, I think it has something to do with this and this

I also think that there's a very delicate issue about the disadvantage of being a Celt when the vast majority of voters are English - which I think counted against Neil Kinnock and, if he hadn't died when he did, would have also been a problem for John Smith - who might have just about scraped home in 1997, but I very much doubt if it would have been anywhere near Blair's landslide majority.

dreamingspire said...

Talking to a well educated and articulate lady in her late 20s, lives with her partner, no children, who runs the office for a small business providing seminars and information services in ICT, I heard that her view of Brown is simply that his physical appearance and behaviour on TV is repugnant. So he is a man who was born in a hole and he should stop digging.
Didn't ask her about Blair, so here's my take: gave him time to make improvement, by 2004 was increasingly concerned that Cabinet Office was using inexpert people to develop policy on ICT and implement some functions, and then at end 2004 something changed - attempts to improve stopped.
2006: Brown got to work in the ICT area, and initiated significant improvements.

Peter B said...

I'm surprised you think Thatcher had cross party admiration. Most lefties of my experience hated her, hate her still. There was a kind of grudging acknowledgement that she was at least sincere, but that's about it.

Max Atkinson said...

Peter B - Having once worked in university sociology departments, I do indeed know how much she was loathed by people on the left - but don't forget that her election victories were not unrelated to the number of votes she attracted from 'blue collar' workers, or how many fans she had among people who'd been able to buy their council houses (thanks to her).