What does electability mean?

Image: Centre for American Progress

Image: Centre for American Progress

Tony Blair had it, David Cameron’s got it, Ed Miliband didn’t have it, but Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper might. We’re told Corbyn definitely doesn’t have it. It’s the political equivalent of ‘the X factor’ you either have it or you don’t.

Electability. It’s the buzzword of the moment, who is electable and who is unelectable? But what exactly does it mean? In it’s simplest form, it’s all about perception. Can you win an election? Or will you lead a party to electoral oblivion? Are you a winner or a loser. Are you a prime minister in waiting, or just an over-promoted SpAd(Special Advisor)?

Reality is rarely reflected. Margaret Thatcher in the years before her election to the Conservative Leadership was seen by some in her party as entirely unelectable, yet she went on to win three elections.

How the media and the public perceive a politician is key to determining their electability. Ed Miliband suffered at the hands of a bacon sandwich, Nick Clegg was painted as the treacherous lap dog of David Cameron; both paid the price of being typecast in the media.

The electable politician needs to cover four broad areas. They must portray a competent image, be a smooth political operator, they must be principled, appear trustworthy and they should have the common touch.

The electable politician is well dressed, well spoken and comfortable in front of the cameras. Thatcher famously employed Saatchi & Saatchi and took elocution lessons in an effort to change perceptions about her. The model she built can be seen in many cardboard cut out career politicians.

Being a smooth political operator involves shrewd policy moves, coordinating election strategies, eliminating your rivals and annihilating your political opponents. Tony Blair famously turned the tables on the Conservatives, occupied the middle ground and forced his opponents to fight on his turf.

A principled and longstanding commitment to ideas and values as the key to electability. Being seen to run away from your principles at the first sign of power can be fatal, Nick Clegg backtracked on tuition fees and never recovered. An electable politician has to be trusted- as much as any politician can be trusted and should be able to make ‘tough decisions’ in the ‘national interest’.

An electable politician isn’t an aloof toff. They may have been educated by the best of the best, parachuted into politics straight out of University and never done a ‘proper days work’ in their life. To be electable you have to be relatable, to have a common touch. Many politicians play this card, from Andy Burnham with his football analogies and beer, chips and gravy anecdotes, to Yvette Cooper putting on a Northern accent in regional radio interviews.

A politician isn’t electable if they only cover one of these areas. You can’t win with a sleek image but no substance. You can’t win an election by being a calculating politician but not having an appealing image. You can’t win by being principled and out of touch and you can’t win by being relatable but a political buffoon.

Ultimately electability doesn’t mean very much. It is a perception, an imagining that might have very little to do with reality. It is a prediction about an election result which will be influenced by an infinite number of issues five years in the future.

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