Hair apparent: do looks matter in politics?

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 21 March 2013 in Diary
Do looks matter in politics more for men than women? And do you prefer the Mini to the normal sized Cheddar?


It is my lot in life, I fear, that when all the exciting stuff happens, I am destined to be holed up in the photocopying room.

And so it was last Thursday when it was all kicking off in the Sports and Social Bar in the House of Commons. By all accounts, something resembling the final scenes of any given A-Team episode was going on outside (“Quick, BA! Shoot the cabbages out of this combine harvester that we’ve converted into a makeshift tank over their heads!”) I was inside involved in a number of serious discussions. The first, and most important, was: why is the Mini Cheddar tastier than its conventionally sized cousin?

The second was: does physical attractiveness matter in politics?

It is a tricky question, to be sure. What is it? That indefinable sensation, the quickening of the pulse when we see a petite, perfect, pulchritudinous form? The widening of the pupil, the heartbeat – resounding so deeply in the chest that it sounds like a drum? Words that are listened to in a daze because we can’t drag our covetous eyes away?

The sensation when our mouth...?

The answer, obviously, is because your smaller Cheddar is both cheesier and more “cakey” as opposed to “biscuity” (like the full-sized Cheddar) in texture. And then – apparently – something went down outside, the Fuzz invited us to vacate the bar, and we had to leave before we’d moved on to an assessment of Parliamentary aesthetics and their impact.

Fun over.

Daniel Hannan once posed the related question: can bald men win elections? He concluded that the available evidence suggested not. Kinnock, depicted famously as a lightbulb in the Sun, lost two elections before the Tonemeister – abundant of flowing locks – stormed to victory in 1997 and two elections thereafter against three Conservative leaders who were all challenged in the follicle area. In fact, Hannan puts forward the theory that no chap sporting anything less than a dusting of tumbleweed has defeated one with a head full of hair. 

So could Ramsay “Housewives’ Choice” MacDonald have made it as the first Labour Prime Minister had he been scant of luscious tangles? More generally, do looks really matter? The consensus, upon polling the electorate (my mum), was that whilst it definitely helps not to resemble Quasimodo, what really counts is presence and the appearance of being a decent bloke, and I’m specific on the gender thing here.

Anyone campaigning after the “I Agree With Nick” debates in the 2010 general election could have told you how well his brand of frank sincerity played with the voting public and – anecdotally – particularly with women. Similarly, those who know me will also know that even a hard-hearted old crone like myself is not immune to the considerable aesthetic charms of Tone.

Yep, being a looker doesn’t hurt you if you’re male. In fact, it probably actively advantages you, especially as, since the 1980s, more women vote in elections than men do. The percentage point difference can range from anything from four to ten in terms of the gender differential and therefore male politicians are likely to benefit from the “What a nice young man” outlook. But if you’re a female politician, I’d punt that it doesn’t cut the other way.

This is the Celebrity Big Brother Theory of women in the public eye, as advanced by my old friend Matt Goddard [@JokerMatt]: as in politics, when it comes to booting celebs off the sofa, women are more likely to vote than men and they tend to actively vote against the women contestants they dislike more readily than they do their male counterparts.

Hurrah for the sisterhood!

Goddard’s Formula holds that this is, in part, down to attractiveness. Fifteen years on from “Blair’s Babes”, and it still appears that not cracking mirrors as you walk past them is an active disadvantage. You’re more likely to be seen as a brainless bimbo or mere “window dressing”, an accusation Caroline Flint MP once made against the Gord when he was prime minister. That said, if you are one of us who is not blessed with natural beauty, you are often subject to cruel personal taunts from crotch-scratchers on the blogs and in the comments sections of online publications. The patriarchy, eh? Love it.

Probably good looks can take you some distance, but only so far if you are male. When you’re female, you’re likely to be damned either way in the first instance. What matters more, in the end, is ability, the presence of mind not to scream in fear every time you appear in front of the dispatch box, and that indefinable charisma sported by politicians such as Blair and Clinton.

Just as the eventually dismissive response to the larger Cheddar proves, initial impressions based on looks aren’t everything. 

Tags: Appearances, Looks, Mini cheddars, Sadie Smith

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