There is no denying that when deciding who to vote for on 7th May, the various politicians’ outward image may be a contributing factor to many peoples’ decisions. This is understandable; sometimes it’s easier to have an opinion on clothes than on policies. When you’re walking down the street and catch yourself admiring someone’s outfit, you often find yourself warming to the person as a whole, too. And the same goes for politicians. In this photo-obsessed age in which we live, we are bombarded daily by photos and videos of politicians vying for our votes, and, on some level, trying to woo us with their carefully sculpted images. Public appearance can provide us with an interesting talking point to build upon core issues or can subconsciously sway where we place our vote, but if used in a negative way it can create a poisonous atmosphere to muddy political debate.
It must be tricky; if David Cameron decides to put a suit on in the morning, to some he’ll appear as a politician to be taken seriously, as someone who is capable of the tough job that is running the country, but others will be alienated – he doesn’t wear the type of clothes that they wear, and who can afford to shop on Saville Row anyway?
And it doesn’t stop at clothes. Public image encompasses hair, body-shape, voice and charisma.It does matter to some extent, but how much should it? It’s hard to see anything wrong with a bit of light-hearted joking at the way Ed Miliband eats a bacon sandwich, or absent-mindedly admiring the dress Nicola Sturgeon wore to the last leader’s debate, but sometimes, public image can grow to overshadow the real issues that are at stake. Take Nigel Farage, known by many as a ‘man of the people’ perhaps because of the way he repeatedly tells us that he’s the only honest politician, or maybe the way he’s rarely seen without a pint in his hand. This becomes a problem when it is the only thing that people know Farage for, and voters take in vague slogans often seen associated with UKIP rather than delving deeper into the party’s policies. The same is true of other parties; in a YouGov poll conducted by Buzzfeed last month, 41% of voters said that they thought Ed Miliband was either ‘very weird’ or ‘somewhat weird’. Miliband’s gaffs have been the source of much debate online in the past year, and for some they are the main thing he’s known for, rather than the policies that Labour have been working so hard on to win votes.
Discussing outfits in the press is an easy way to draw readers in, and image is something that (with a bit of descriptive language in an article) can be moulded and manipulated in such as way as to sway opinion one way or another. Nicola Sturgeon probably knows this all too well. Recently Sturgeon has been pictured on the front cover of the Sun photo-shopped onto a wrecking ball, Miley-style, complete with tartan crop-top and knickers. Here was an example of image being used in a negative way, to damage the public’s opinion of a politician in a disrespectful and sexist manner. In the press Sturgeon’s preference of a skirt suit is often used as ammunition to fuel the severe, masculine image they build up around her as a way to put off voters. The mere fact that a politician is female presents a journalist with a whole host of angles that they can spin – from the stern, ‘too-masculine’ way that Sturgeon is portrayed, to the ‘doesn’t know what she’s doing’ attitude that is often painted on the Green’s Natalie Bennett, despite her more than adequate performance in the past two leader’s debates. Perhaps these are examples of public image discussion that have gone too far.
Of course, image is important to some extent. A charismatic and polished leader running the UK will have undeniable benefits for the country’s image as a whole, especially in terms of foreign policy. The fact remains that political parties really do need a figurehead with some degree of a pleasing persona to draw in voters. But this image polishing should not be darkened into insult trading between parties, and should not replace solid discussion of policy in the press.