Is decency in politics back on the rise?
- Credit: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
As the election results came in from New Zealand I was lucky enough to be able to celebrate with a small (fewer than six!) group of Kiwis, close friends and former colleagues of victorious Jacinda Ardern. With so much bad news around, it was great to be able to enjoy a stunning Labour victory; a victory for competent, sensible, pragmatic centre left politics, and strong, clear empathetic leadership.
One of our happy little group, former NZ MP Darren Hughes, had been speaking to her through the week and had sent her the new Spitting Image sketch which caricatured her as Mary Poppins, flying in from the sky to dispense a spoonful of sugar to grateful, happy, healthy, adoring New Zealanders. It is quite something for the leader of such a small country to be included for satirical puppetry alongside the global giants Trump, Xi, Merkel and Macron, as well as our own giant toddler, Boris Johnson. Hughes said Ardern liked the sketch, apart from the bit where she chopped the head off the guy who coughed, because she worried he might have Covid! – “She just thought it was a bit violent”. Cue laughter all round. Even in a puppet satire sketch, she wants everything to be... just nice.
Yet that niceness is a huge part of her electoral success, and the global fame she is enjoying, way beyond that which would normally accompany the leader of a country of fewer than five million people, situated a long way from pretty much anywhere else.
Those qualities she displays so effortlessly – acute emotional intelligence, basic empathy, kindness, love of and genuine interest in people – are also playing out in another election, in a far bigger country, whose outcome will have a far bigger impact on the world, namely the USA.
Spitting Image, and the US satire show Saturday Night Live, both do Joe Biden as the effervescently happy, smiley, folksy, positive guy who provides such a contrast to the torrent of bile spewed out by Donald Trump. As with Ardern, (and my favourite puppet, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp) they focus on huge white teeth, and an attitude that says ‘isn’t life grand?’
In a world beset by so many seemingly intractable problems, worsened by Trumpian polarisation and the US vacation of the role of leader of the free and democratic world, such positivity is not to be underestimated as an electoral force.
A British friend and former Labour strategist who now lives in the States told me this week “there is a bit of a feel of UK 1997 going on; people just sick of Trump, sick of all the nastiness, looking at Biden and seeing someone who can bring a bit of hope”. That view was echoed later the same day in a BBC report from one of the key swing states, Pennsylvania, where reporter Nick Bryant spoke to a former Trump voter, who said he just wanted all the hatred and division to stop.
Cliché time – politics is a rough trade; so you do not get to be prime minister of New Zealand, let alone president of the US after surviving several decades close to the top of the political ladder, as Biden has done, without toughness, resilience, and the ability to upset as well as please people.
But precisely because Biden has been around so long, those harsher qualities are not in doubt. He knows how to do politics. Hence the character issues have become more important. Beyond the Trump cult, admittedly a terrifyingly sizeable chunk of the population, the president’s character is clear – narcissistic, untruthful, hateful, divisive. He speaks first and foremost about himself, his favourite person and his favourite subject. Biden is a genuine people person, and that has come through more and more during the last few months.
Filming himself calling his granddaughter for a chat from the campaign trail would risk coming over as twee, were it not for the fact that all but the Trump cult, fully fledged Biden-haters, would see it as authentic. The accompanying tweet, that his grandchildren are the only people whose calls he will always take, regardless of where he is and what he is doing, was entirely believable, and confirmed by those who work for him.
Famously, Biden had a bad stammer as a child, and even today, every now and then, you can sense him struggling slightly to get the words to his lips at the time and in the timbre he wants. But when 13-year-old Brayden Harrington stole the show at the Democrats’ convention in August, it wasn’t the publicly filmed encounters with Biden that were so moving; it was the fact it subsequently emerged from the family that the former vice president had been keeping in touch with the boy regularly, and advising him on how to deal with his stammer. Has anyone ever heard of stories where Trump helped others less fortunate than himself, unless it was to boast about having done so?
Ardern is a good woman. Biden is a good man. Trump is a bad man. Simple as that. If he wins a second term, it is a win for badness, and that is bad for America, and bad for the world. Because badness on top of incompetence should not be rewarded, when a good, decent and competent alternative is available.
In recent years, populism has been a dominant force in world politics, with Trump the noisiest and most obvious manifestation of it. If he is beaten by decency that will be a big moment for the world. It will be a big moment for Britain, too. Because badness on top of incompetence should not be rewarded, when a good, decent and competent alternative is available.
Johnson’s badness and incompetence have become clearer with every passing week. Keir Starmer has made a good start in rebuilding Labour as a good, decent and competent alternative. But there is a long way to go, and I am in little doubt the Tories will be a lot more ruthless about dispensing with Johnson than the Republicans were able or willing to do with Trump. That Rishi Sunak puppet was strangely pleasing on the eye, compared with the monstrosity Spitting Image have created for Johnson.
I was in Freiburg, Germany last week, not least to check out whether its branding as one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the world was justified. It is. Clean, efficient, traffic-light, and I was totally spoilt for choice in my daily Tree of the Day contest on Twitter and Instagram.
My partner Fiona also claims she saw me “starstruck for the first time in your life”. Actually I wasn’t, and if I had been, it would not have been the first time. It is true that I have met many very famous people in my time in journalism and politics, and few have ever phased me. But I might have to confess to a mild wobble the first time I met Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona and Princess Diana, (separately, though it would have been a good dinner party, for sure).
So I was not so much starstruck, as just shocked, to walk out of the hotel, and bump into Joachim Löw, manager of Germany’s football team. Though I knew he was from Freiburg, I also knew Germany had had a game the night before, in Cologne. So I said hello, did a weird kind of wave, and Fiona and I walked on.
“Who was that?” she asked.
“Joachim Löw,” I said.
“Who is he?”
“If you don’t know now, you will never care. But I should have stopped and got an interview with him.”
“Losing your touch.”
As in the UK, a resurgence in Covid cases was the big story in Germany. On one of the days I was there, the news was leading with chancellor Angela Merkel holding a video conference call with the mayors of 12 large cities. On another, she chaired a meeting of the federal government she leads, and the leaders of the regional Länder, and afterwards did a long press conference flanked by Michael Müller, the governing mayor of Berlin, who comes not from her CDU party, but the SDP; and Markus Söder, the leader of Bavaria and her sister CSU Party.
The difference with Boris Johnson, whose rare calls to regional and opposition politicians are only so he can say he made them, and whose last two press conferences appeared to have the sole purpose of attacking Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, could not have been clearer.
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