Totes emosh

What politicians should learn from stand-ups, how anger makes you smarter, and what my hairdresser says about Sunday's final.

Gareth Southgate congratulating/consoling Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel after the England-Denmark semi-final. Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Slightly shorter than usual because I’ve been spending all my spare minutes watching, reading about, listening to ver football.

Labour’s close by-election victory over the Tories in Batley and Spen was rich in narrative. First, because the fate of Keir Starmer’s leadership seemed to hang on it. Second, the seat used to be represented by Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was assassinated in 2016 during the Brexit campaign - and this time around, Labour’s candidate was her sister, Kim Leadbeater. Third, the celebrity faux-socialist dickhead George Galloway chose to contest the seat. He targeted its large Muslim community, threatening to split Labour’s vote.

By-election campaigns are tightly controlled affairs but the key moment in this story was accidental. Leadbeater was going to her car when she was approached by young Asian men aggressively asking her to state her position on LGBT education in schools. Leadbeater (who is a lesbian) gave them what for: This is where I live, this is my community. Don’t come here and shout at me in the street. The Muslim community of Batley and Spen deserve better than this.” She was visibly angry, jabbing her finger at them as she spoke. The video went viral.

At the time, it wasn’t clear whether Leadbeater had made a mistake by rising to the provocation. But when I saw it I felt it would be good for her - that if anything, she should have given them both barrels for longer - and the post-victory reports have all cited it as a factor in turning the tide her way. You can see why. Yes, voters, including Muslim voters, were angered by the intimidation. But it also seemed to reveal something about the candidate - that she was a fighter, someone who would give as good as she got.

I think these moments - unscripted, raw, messy - are increasingly important in political campaigning. Campaign managers keep their candidates away from voters in the wild because these encounters are so unpredictable. That seems sensible enough, but at the same time, a moment of true spontaneity can bring dividends, if the politician can think and react on their feet as Leadbeater did.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how voters have become deeply cynical about the robo-pol style of communication, and hunger for something, anything, more real. Trump and Johnson realise that gaffes - ‘telling the truth by accident’ - aren’t gaffes anymore. The value of being seen to be emotionally truthful out-weighs whatever is negative about the statement, whether it’s false or offensive or contradictory.

Contrast Leadbeater’s vivid response to Keir Starmer’s when confronted by a landlord angry about Labour’s support for lockdowns. Starmer just stands there and takes it, passive to the point of frigidity. Eventually he works up the gumption to talk about the need to protect NHS staff, and says “I really don’t need lectures from you.” Better - but still rather prim and proper; there’s no attempt to actually seize the moment and make something of it.

Rather than trying avoid these volatile encounters politicians should learn to use them the way a stand-up uses a heckle to inject energy into their performance and bond with the audience. That would mean preparing the kind of thing they might say should such a moment arise and then allowing themselves, in a controlled way, to lose a little self-control on camera. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but then politics is a game of tricky balances.

There’s an old saying that people don’t care about what you know until they know that you care. When voters see a politician baring their soul by accident they start to listen.



I’m against memes and gifs and in fact I’m against images on the internet generally but I’ll make an exception here, because it’s a kind of meta-meme and I think it’s funny. Plus it is, of course, relevant to a theme of CONFLICTED - that some degree of heat or anger in a disagreement is a good thing, including and especially on complicated topics. Emotion can cloud our thinking, sure, but it can also supercharge it. Emotions motivate us, and they can motivate us to have better, more incisive arguments than we would by discussing our differences calmly. As witness I call Bertrand Russell (who was talking about his debates with Wittgenstein over questions in the most abstract field of philosophy, mathematical logic): “There is nothing to compare to passion for giving one cold insight.”