Why The Next Labour Leader Should Be A Guy In A Frock

The sun shines, but these are miserable days for anyone with even the slightest interest in the politics of the left. There’s the occasional outbreak of jollity, such as when the UKIP pantomime kicks off,  but even that fades when one remembers that they got four million votes.  As for the Labour leadership campaign. The heart sinks.

The noise around Labour mainly seems to come from assorted Blairite undead, and their media echo chamber. Their view, it seems, is that anyone who isn’t a messianic egomaniac who is intensely relaxed about the filthy rich will never command the assent of the British people. Obviously that explains the loss of Scotland.

Blair, they say, or someone with Blairish gifts (oh, Alan Johnson, please come rescue Labour from the threat of Andy Burnham and Len McCluskey) will be able to communicate with the electorate in ways the geeky Miliband could never manage. Because he couldn’t do ‘normal’.

There are so many things wrong with this analysis, most of them self-evident (who lost all those votes between 1997 and 2005?).  But there is one aspect that is worth inspection.

Communication. Labour didn’t communicate a clear message in the manner of the Tory tag lines, but I’m not sure I want to encourage a form of politics that relies on cynical over-simplification and straight untruths. But Labour didn’t communicate a sense of enthusiasm and purpose, either. I’m persuaded by the view that the polls got it wrong not because ‘shy Tories’ lied to pollsters, but because ‘lethargic Labour’ supporters were not sufficiently motivated to turn out and vote.

So how can the Labour Party communicate a complex message about Britain and its prospects, and to do so in ways which don’t over-simplify, which model empathy, and an ability to listen, and which makes people aspire to something that is about lives well-lived, and not mere material consumption?

Step forward the guy in the frock.

Britain’s most loved contemporary artist, Grayson Perry, shows us the way.  Does he care whether he looks ‘normal’? A guy who can turn up at a building site wearing a mini dress and patent platform shoes makes Cameron and Osborne with their hi-vis jacket and hard hat obsession look like amateurs.  But what Perry does so successfully does have lessons for political communicators.

Contemporary art is ‘difficult’. Perry called a recent touring show he curated, ‘Unpopular Culture’. Contemporary art is often baffling, without obvious, crowd-pleasing appeal.  It can feel excluding, elitist, and irrelevant to most people’s lives – just like politics. So how come Grayson Perry has become a rock star who can range across the class, ethnic, gender and regional divisions of our society, and end up being loved?  Why does his art move people?

Perry’s series for Channel Four, The Vanity of Small Differences, looked at social class in Britain, and then turned it into art. His approach, often more ethnographer than artist, saw Perry engage with everyone from tattoo obsessives to aristos on their uppers.  Collectors of china ornaments, karaoke singers, ‘executive home’ dwellers with label fetishes, white van men, hijab ladies, Perry makes art that speaks to them all.

I made repeated visits to the exhibition, The Vanity of Small Differences (as I had to Unpopular Culture).  Both exhibitions were constantly busy, and with a much more diverse crowd than is usually seen in galleries.  People looked long, and closely at the work. Perry is unusual in also demanding that any merchandise associated with his shows are priced with a mass market in mind.  I saw a brisk trade in his catalogue, greetings cards, and scarves in the shop afterwards.

Perry’s latest project was shown in a Channel Four programme this week. The Grayson Perry House (available on the All Four app for another three weeks) showed Perry’s approach to a commission to build a house to his own design in the Essex countryside.  The entire village turns out to listen to the man in the frock, greeting him with rapturous applause. The building crew grow to love their mad mission, the gaffer confessing to shedding a tear. Cheery Lancashire tile manufacturing workers glue nipples onto goddesses, Ladies called Julie cycle through Basildon on a pilgrimage, before dissolving in tears when they get to the house. It’s all intensely moving, and it is genuinely about art.

My point is that Perry’s very political art is a masterclass in popular communication. He listens, he observes, he never judges, and yet he somehow sorts the genuine from the bogus and crafts it into something that speaks to people who might otherwise have no need for contemporary art.  Perry understands and loves his society and communicates that authentically without fudging the inherent difficulties and contradictions.  These are things able politicians should be able to do, too.

If we can’t elect Grayson Perry, let’s at least emulate his approach.

2 thoughts on “Why The Next Labour Leader Should Be A Guy In A Frock

  1. What the Blairites are missing is that the context has changed from 1997. In the mid-90s, Thatcherism was the dominant ideology – people were not disillusioned with laissez-faire capitalism but with the seedy incompetence of the Tory Government. Blairism was a child of this time and sought to deal with this reality and in many ways was successful- reducing child and pensioner poverty, investing in schools and hospitals, introducing the minimum wage, etc. In the mid-15s people are deeply suspicious of turbo-capitalism and want a better way of doing things. Possible alternatives were not clearly offered by Labour, which was conflicted between accepting deficit reduction and supporting a more compassionate society. A return to the “business hugging” mid-90s would be a disaster for Labour. We need a credible alternative to turbo-capitalism, joining social solidarity to economic competence, supporting genuinely innovative and entrepreneurial business whilst making the case for social investment as well.

  2. Don’t disagree with you, Roy. But I was trying to make a different point about political communication. I think that it is possible to communicate complex, nuanced ideas and to make them popular. I fear that a different conclusion is being drawn, that is, that simple political ideas – retail politics – are needed. The ‘suspiciousness’ you identify is also suspiciousness of easy remedies.

    BTW, I liked your letter in The Guardian. A good set of letters all round that day.

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