YouGov has some interesting polling showing that the three main party leaders are all unpopular. In the past this has not been the case. Until the 1950s it was quite normal for both Conservative and Labour leaders to have positive ratings. As the Liberals began to feature in the polling, at least one of the party leaders was always popular at any one time. Why are all three main party leaders now unpopular?
YouGov suggested some plausible reasons, such as the wartime records of the post-war leaders and the faith which deprived voters placed in life-changing policies such as the NHS.
The low ratings could be because the current leaders are simply not as good as any of their predecessors. However, it would be hard to argue that David Cameron is a worse leader than Anthony Eden, or that Ed Miliband is worse than Michael Foot or Nick Clegg worse than Clement Davies. So, even if you do not think that the current leaders are the best which their parties have had, they are certainly not the worst.
Part of the answer is mathematical. There are more parties than ever before in real contention in British politics. Ten different parties have served at Westminster or in one of the devolved administrations, and this does not even include the Greens, Ukip or Respect. Most voters are partisan and will give a favourable response about the leader of the party which they support, but will be very grudging in rating the leadership of another party positively. The more parties which there are, on average, the worse will be the leaders’ ratings.
Another reason is the lack of deference. In an age when a university education was a rare achievement, where few people featured in the press or on television, many voters were impressed by an Eton and Oxbridge education, a title or a track record of working in a coal mine for twenty years. These days there are plenty of backgrounds which would be a disadvantage to a politician, but very few which automatically command respect.
Another reason is scrutiny. Today’s politicians are subject to minute scrutiny of every aspect of their life. Naturally, this encourages most to play safe in order to avoid negative coverage. But, when other professions are subject to the same scrutiny, many appear much worse than the politicians. Television presenters, police, Catholic priests, journalists and bankers, to name a few, have not exactly appeared as paragons of virtue when they have been subject to scrutiny.
Having worked with industrialists and politicians, my impression is that on average the calibre of the politicians is higher than that of the industrialists. But, politicians tend to fear industrialists, while industrialists tend to have contempt for politicians – even when they are phoning the chancellor of the exchequer to demand money when their bank is about to fail or, as in the US, when they need the president to save their car manufacturing plants.
Industrialists and politicians used to treat each other as respected equals – particularly because many of them were the same people – Jeremiah Colman, Arnold Rowntree, Alfred Mond, David Davies, Geoffrey Mander and Stanley Baldwin were all top industrialists who sat in Parliament. Liberal Party leader, Clement Davies was managing director of Unilever. Today the only FTSE 100 chairman to have sat in the Commons is Archie Norman, former chairman of ASDA, who was a Conservative MP from 1997 to 2005.
So, if politicians are not held in high regard, it is not entirely their fault. We do tend to judge them by a standard which most other humans are not able to match.