This article was first published in The Guardian
I was appalled to see in a recent opinion poll that 74% of voters said they would be more likely to vote Labour if Ed Miliband changed his face. Actually, I wasn’t appalled because I made that up. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Labour’s lead hit double figures on condition that Ed swapped the Miliface for someone else’s. Possibly his brother David’s.
I’m sure most politicians would change their face if it would win them an election (most of them have got two anyway), but are voters really that shallow? Francois Hollande clearly thinks so, hence the pressure on various French news agencies not to show a picture of him gurning like a hamster who’d overreached himself cheekwise. Similarly, David Cameron can’t be that happy about the picture of him before his sister-in-law’s wedding getting 40 winks – ironic seeing at his governments planning to cut the number of winks to 32 (except for those earning over £150K. We don’t want to drive big winkers out of the country).
Everyone from 7 year olds who look crap on school photo day to Neil Kinnock arse-over-tipping on the beach knows that images can be devastating. Or redeeming. Remember that footage of Gordon Brown leaving Downing Street for the last time, hand-in-hand with his two little kids? I watched that next to a Labour supporter who referred to the boys as “10 seats” and “20 seats” because that’s how many marginals he felt could have been won had Brown allowed them to be photographed with him during the campaign. We may try and pretend that it’s all about policy, that the next election will be fought over welfare or the NHS, but the truth is it’s more likely to be won and lost on whether someone can get a picture of Cameron or Miliband taking a dump.
And the Tories might not even need dumpgate. Judging from my highly scientific poll of a group of people I recently had a row with in Garfunkels, Labour may be deprived of a majority at the next election simply because some people could never vote for Miliband as he “looks like a human platypus” (at least it’s more original than Wallis and Gromit). What do they want? A Labour manifesto that includes guarantees of above-inflation rises in cheekbones and the complete elimination of monobrows by 2020? Is that how things are now? Was Labour’s struggle in the 80s and 90s to make themselves electable really just about moving from elderly and ginger leaders to one who was reasonably hot (if you’ll forgive me for making you think of Blair in those terms)? Not so much Clause 4 as Clause Phwoar. It’s the dental work, stupid, not the economy.
Of course, Cameron’s no Ryan Gosling when it comes to looks. He can’t be much more than a 6, even to his wife, even to a Tory shires lady who really hates badgers. Clegg is maybe a 7 just before the last election and a 3 after it. At best. Which all sounds a bit shallow and yet that’s how people seem to be judging Miliband, certainly in Heathrow Garfunkel’s. I suspect that one reason the accusations of weakness and indecision stick to him even though he has often showed considerable boldness (Murdoch, Syria, the unions, fratricide) is because his body language seems so apologetic (has no-one at the Labour party ever heard of Pilates?!). It seems that people who’d never dream of not voting for someone because they were black or gay feel it’s alright to not vote for someone because they “don’t look right”.
Of course it’s not just in politics that we judge people by their looks. Looks are what count on TV, in the office, even in the bedroom (OK, that’s probably allowable). As an actor, I’ve profited from being “funny looking”. A review once described me as “incredibly grotesque, with a face you’d only expect to see on the X-Files”. It was intended (and taken) as compliment. I’m fine with my looks (am I protesting too much?) but they’ve made me very aware of how just how much our faces define us.
Look at TV presenters. The Law of Brucie states that men stay attractive until roughly 30 years after their demise (those worms coming out of our skull just make us look “distinguished”), but if Holly Willoughby ever sprouts so much as a frown-line, she’ll be bagged up and carted off before you can say “hot flush”. This is always framed in terms of sexism and ageism, but seeing as men with a deformity or a birthmark find it as difficult to get presenting gigs as women over 40 perhaps the opposition isn’t men/women or young women/old women but attractive/unattractive. Perhaps it’s uglism, plain and simple –like the faces of those who are excluded (as you’d say if you were uglist).
I’m sure the quite hot Richard Dawkins (a definite 7, I reckon) would say the response to a person’s looks are instinctual, part of our biological make-up. But that shouldn’t stop us checking our prejudices and rejecting them, especially when it comes to who we want to run the country.
So let’s kick uglism out of politics. We need to protect ourselves from ignoring the best candidate because he or she looks a bit “Other”. Maybe we need positive discrimation and all-ugly shortlists or we should make the veil compulsory for all politicians. Maybe the electoral reform we need isn’t AV or PR but changing our voting system so it’s like “The Voice”, with voters unable to see candidates till they’ve cast their votes by hitting a red button on a swivelly chair. And yes, installing 40 million swivelly chairs nationwide could be costly but who are we to put a price on democracy? It’s the only way or we’ll just end up choosing our leader according to who looks best in a swimsuit, and I for one don’t reckon Miliband’s chances in speedos.