Not a day goes by without the face of Cameron, Clegg or Miliband gracing the homepage of the Huffington Post UK. I always find myself grimacing slightly and quickly clicking back to the Daily Mail's celeb column. Although from different political backgrounds (apparently), they all have the same tired, glazed look to them. Unsurprisingly so, given that the headlines are almost without exception negative.
It was with this in mind that I read an op-ed this week in my favourite salmon-coloured newspaper, the FT, by Janan Ganesh, who sought to explain why Miliband is doing so badly. His party is languishing in the polls, despite 'markets' and 'capitalism' being so unpopular. How can he possibly be failing to capitalise on the failure of capitalism?
In many parts of Europe, the right are holding on quite comfortably, notably in Germany, where Merkel is pretty much an immovable object. In countries where the left have taken power in recent years, such as France, Italy and Spain, their governments are at best incompetent and at worst completely inept.
Is this a consequence of a failure of 'global left', as Ganesh phrased it, to properly understand the financial crisis of five years ago? Are voters really innately market friendly and conservative? Is it really fair to say that 'any loss of faith [amongst voters] in the market was not matched by a revival of faith in the state'?
No doubt there are elements of these things. But, returning to my initial point about unpleasant faces, I suspect it's far simpler than that. People don't like politicians, and the more objectionable the person in question, the less likely you are to get elected.
Political scientists, much like economists, seem to spend a lot of time looking for nice patterns to explain human behaviour, but regularly get things horribly wrong. Apparently we're experiencing a boom in the UK, despite the fact that six months ago, permanent recession seemed to be on the cards. Similarly, where did Ukip come from? Again and again, Farage and his slightly unpleasant, red-faced gang keep trouncing the Tories (and Labour) in the polls.
Perhaps the whole situation is far easier to explain if we simply look at modern politics as a crap beauty contest, only instead of porn stars, we have odd-looking politico-nerds to choose from. Not only this, but the politico-nerds have only nominated to represent their parties by saying whatever they need to say to whomever they need to speak to in order to be there.
Only the wettest, most malleable, least controversial people make it to the top of modern political parties, and therefore political life generally. They may be 'popular' (read: tolerated) within their chosen party, but in the real world, most people seem to be able to see through the crap that emanates from their mouths and fingertips. Is it any wonder that everyone is so pissed off with "the establishment"?
So how is it that Labour aren't forty points ahead of the Tories? Is it because British voters are actually deep down big fans of the free market? Is it some sort of 'Anglo-Saxon' character trait to be tolerant of unregulated industry?
No, I think it's far more likely that British voters simply don't like Labour because they don't like Miliband. I'm sure he's a great guy with some decent ideas, but can anyone actually envisage him being taken seriously by Obama, Putin or the other 'statesmen' of our era? When politics comes up in conversation with friends or family, the discussion is never about the relative merits of privatisation, the rights of man or the Marxist dialectic. Instead it's usually about Cameron's or Miliband's deficiencies as human beings.
My suspicion is that a politician (and therefore the party they represent) are as popular as they are close to their voters. Everyone loved Clegg because they thought the Lib Dems were outside "the establishment" and part of the crowd. Labour and the Conservatives have long looked disengaged and beholden to interests (overweight unionists in the former case and City prats in the latter). People vote for these parties because they are familiar, not because they are popular.
And this would also explain why Farage and Boris are so adored, even if on paper (and sometimes in reality) they look and sound like nutcases. They're both entertaining to watch and listen to, especially when their barbed words are directed at sallow-faced party apparatchiks. And refreshingly they seem to have bypassed/risen above the bullshit that has swamped the political establishment over the past few decades.
So in conclusion, I'm not sure Mr Ganesh's assertion that Miliband's unpopularity is due to his misreading of the electorate's views on markets. I think it's much simpler. They just don't like him that much.