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Party leaders and their political personality game

Anti racism ballot box

Rishi Sunak’s there – drenched in the rain – calling an election. Labour’s 1997 election anthem, Things can only get better is blaring in the background in what The Evening Standard called a ‘gaffe-prone start to the election’. From that moment, the subsequent national conversation has focused somewhat on the content of our politicians’ speeches and manifestos, but more-so on the non-verbal optics of the whole affair.

When it comes to our leaders and elections, why are we so obsessed with the individual? Political power in the UK generally lies collectively with 21 individuals – the Cabinet – which is a relatively devolved way of sharing power compared to other countries. But we like to have a focal point to help us make sense of things – namely the Prime Minister. The party leaders know this and so give us nuggets and nudges to indicate what kind of person they are and the leader they will be, in the hope that it will impact our voting at the polls.

So, what bread crumb trail has been laid for us – the electorate – in this campaign? How have the different party leaders used leadership iconography to convince us of their character?

Conservatives – Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak has faced an uphill battle this election. Having spent the last six years in the thick of an unpopular Conservative government, he has spent the campaign looking to distance himself from his party's previous decisions. But how many times can you successfully reinvent your image and change perception? The public have a nose for authenticity. Thinking back a few months, Sunak initially presented himself as the ‘change’ candidate. This didn’t land with the public at all. Now, he’s playing on the public fears, using war metaphors of not ‘surrendering’, and presenting himself as a ‘safer’ option than Labour.

Smart, tight suits – Sunak presents as ever the ‘business type’. This consistent look tries to present a dynamic and trustworthy image – a safe pair of hands for something like the economy. But you can’t help but wonder if he’s pigeon-holed in this style of dress - whenever he changes out of his suited and booted uniform, or rolls up his sleeves in a factory, he is roundly mocked. X responses to him wearing a hoodie on the way to Penzance noted how out of the ordinary the outfit seemed.

Labour – Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer has had a similar task to Sunak. Both are trying to distance themselves from a previous, unpopular administration they helped form. This though has perhaps been easier for the Labour leader, with a few more years since the Corbyn era and less tangible and citable engagement.

In dress, like Sunak, Starmer has opted for suits to present a dignified, statesmanlike and trustworthy image. But crucially, throughout his campaign, there have been some masterful set pieces from Starmer: 120 businesses backed him in an open letter, and he spent a day dressed in camo meeting soldiers. Typically, Labour politicians are mistrusted on ‘serious’ issues relating to military, industry, finance etc. These orchestrated but symbolic pieces help signal change to voters and aims to indicate that Starmer is taking the political issues seriously.

Liberal Democrats – Ed Davey

Ed Davey has clearly taken a leaf from the Boris Johnson school of political stunts in his campaign. Paddle boarding, cycling, drumming at a care home – he looks like he is having a whale of a time. In an election that has seemed much like a two-horse race, this has been a savvy move from the Lib Dem leader. It has cut through the political waffle, creating noise and visibility for his party. But noise for what? Still, it carries the risk of seeing an election like a massive gameshow, rather than about peoples’ real issues and hopes.

Hence, the contrast with a deeply moving and personal look into his life caring for his family. This aims to appeal to the public’s desire for authenticity and transparency, with less of a sense of staging. Only voting day will tell if this has been enough to temper the oddness of his previous antics.

Reform – Nigel Farage

Rough and unpolished - Nigel Farage aims to be seen as a charismatic figure who provides the counterpoint. He plays with what he thinks voters like to see in a traditional English person. A twist is that his iconography seems to be provoking angry opponents, which he can present as ‘Englishness’ under attack. Take the milkshake incident – it could go some way to add to his popularity.

Interestingly, Farage presents himself as being anti-establishment, referring to political colleagues as ‘you people’. Yet in reality, he is as much the establishment as everyone else in the draw – and it will be interesting to see if voters recognise this.

Green – Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay

Who? Though they have had some exposure in the leadership debates, you would be forgiven for not knowing who the leaders of the Green party are. Yet this could be a deliberate and respectable change of pattern.

Green’s policies are issue oriented and strong ideologically. In a world where many see climate change as the pressing political topic of our time, it may be better for the party that their leaders do not play the personality game. When the ideas and the pressing challenge are tangible, they seem to think this drives votes more than a personalised brand of politics and individual charisma. However, as noted before, playing to the cult of personality is still an active tactic, so the election will tell if this approach works.

This election feels different to previous elections. People are voting less on a single issue – Brexit, or university fees – a range of themes are noticeable. And there feels like a lot of indecision with many voters sitting in the middle, ready to be persuaded. The debate is covering policy over a multitude of important topics rather than predominantly personality, and arguably voters have more tools on hand than ever before to scrutinise these. But it’s unclear how engaged voters are, and this is where leadership iconography can influence the result. It could be that many put the cross in the box because of a ‘feeling’ about who they want as the leading party.

But what do we know? As an electorate we are a notoriously unpredictable bunch, and we will have to see what happens on Thursday.

Professor Bernd Vogel

Professor in Leadership
Published 2 July 2024
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Henley news Leading insights

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