Feature: What does it take to get ahead in politics?

Having a decent smile can cover up for a lot of other defects
Having a decent smile can cover up for a lot of other defects

Scrubbing up well helps in politics - but it's no substitute for a political brain.

By Alex Stevenson

This feature begins with a rather troubling claim: that there are a lot of "sexually active" people on the parliamentary premises. Actually, This is actually quite a well-known fact in the Palace of Westminster. It became so much of a problem, so the story goes, that the roof terrace - once frequented by excessively amorous researchers - has been closed to plebeian access.

"There does seem to be an atmosphere in this strange place - possibly inevitably, because there's a large number of sexually active people who are present here," explains Paul Flynn, the veteran Labour MP. The problem is so grave, he believes, that it poses genuine perils for politicians' marriages.

"Inevitably there will be dangers of couplings that might well be fruitful or beneficial, but others that might be potentially dangerous.

"I do cautiously suggest people have to be aware of the dangers of the disruption to family life. If they wish to stay married they're going to have to watch, as this is a place of all kind of dangers and temptations."

Crikey. Gulp. Flynn, who talks about the current crop of MPs making up "the most beautiful parliament we've had for many years", doesn't exactly hold back. He says there's been an "invasion of stunning brunette goddesses on the Labour side and blonde goddesses on the Conservative side, with some male Adonises here and there".

There is a connection between the influx of attractive new politicians and the amount of "couplings", as Flynn puts it. But it's not as direct as you might think.

For the answer to this riddle we have to look to Catherine Hakim, a social scientist from the London School of Economics. Her latest book, Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, places a high premium on a person's attractiveness, in all its forms.

"Politicians generally have always had an allure. They've always had the attraction of being in power, in some sense of authority if they're in government, and in all societies politicians have had a particular allure."

This extends beyond politics. Take sportspersons, for example: even if they're quite ugly, Hakim argues, they will be attractive to women. "It is about the power of being successful," she insists. "And if you've been elected, the point is you've still been politically successful."

That all sounds fine and dandy if you're already an elected person. But what about if you haven't got elected to parliament just yet? What does it take to make progress up the slippery politics pole?

Shane Greer, author of So You Want To Be A Politician?, suggests part of the answer is appearing like a successful person. "What motivates people isn't policy, at the end of the day," he says. "We like to think it is, but it isn't what gets you over the line."

He argues that politics is essentially a communications profession - where having the right messages, and pushing the right buttons, is enough.

"It's a trust business. You're saying 'elect me, you can trust me to make decisions on your behalf' - and that's quite a big ask. It's a bigger ask than a product like a chocolate bar that you can eat and then decide you don't like it, you won't buy it again. With a politician you're buying the product for five years."

Packaging matters in politics, therefore. As Hakim shows in her book, all the research evidence points to attractiveness becoming more and more important over time. It's going to become more and more important in the future too.

"As societies become more affluent, they can afford more luxuries. And beauty, charm, elegance, is something we want to afford and we expect it in the people we relate to."

And the people we elect, as well. Social skills matter much more than before, especially given the changing labour market and more jobs appearing in white collar work.

"Lawyers who are attractive earn more money than those who are unattractive - they're more persuasive in winning over juries, so they attract more customers, etc," Hakim explains. "Being attractive has a payoff - a genuine social and economic value, for anyone who uses it."

But there's more to it than just looking attractive and having those social skills. You need to put them to work.

"When it comes to winning elections," Greer says, "what's much more important is your communication skills and how you present yourself to the electorate. What ultimately motivates people is less to do with the policy and much more to do with how you communicate your policy - how you put that message forward."

Above all else, you need to be intuitive. This involves "a careful study of the erogenous zones" of the people you're trying to win over, according to Flynn.

"If you have impassioned views on certain subjects, often it's better to suppress them if you're presenting yourself to a group of people who are impassioned about fixing the drains and making sure the dog dirt disappears from the streets," he says.

"You have to read your audience and anticipate them to be selected as a candidate and win election victories.

"If you're a Tory going along to the Taliban Tories, you put your intelligence to rest for a while and preach the drivelling banalities of the Daily Mail if that's what they want to hear.

"This is the whole nature of politics - you adjust your presentation to the audience you're speaking to."

Initially, my final para was: 'Only by putting all these ingredients of charm, attractiveness and knowing your audience together will you stand a chance at making it.' But that's not quite right, is it?

Clearly, being superficially well-presented matters - indeed, it's becoming increasingly important. But just oozing sex appeal is not enough. You need to have a political brain, too, to get you past that first hurdle and into parliament. After that, how you spend your time in the corridors of power is entirely up to you...


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