General Election 2024

Election panel: Do voters want to see the personal side of politicians?

Our group of experts on whether personality matters in an election campaign

June 06, 2024
Ed Davey’s first party political broadcast of the election. Image: Liberal Democrats
Ed Davey’s first party political broadcast of the election. Image: Liberal Democrats

It’s election season. Prospect has invited writers and experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues. 

Yesterday we asked them about tax. Today, following the runaway online success of the Liberal Democrats’ first election broadcast, in which leader Ed Davey spoke movingly about caring for his disabled son, we asked our panellists: do politicians’ personal lives matter to voters?

Emily Lawford: Do voters want to see the personal side of politicians?

Marie Le Conte: I think voters like the idea of seeing the personal side of politicians, but will end up often resenting it if they don’t like what they’re seeing.

There’s this platonic ideal of the politician who’s not robotic or a party drone and who has a real life and real interests but only in those specific ways that will appeal to everyone and not turn anyone off. I’m not convinced they’ve actually existed so far.

Frances Ryan: Yes, voters want to know the real you—but not the real you who likes pool rather than football. Be yourself. But not like that!

Tim Bale: Given research by, among others, my Queen Mary University of London colleague Philip Cowley, which strongly suggests that voters are potentially swayed by a candidate’s personal characteristics, especially (but not exclusively) where they come from and where they went to school, the job they do, and whether they are married and have kids, then I think we’d have to conclude that people are indeed interested in politicians’ personal sides. But I’m guessing there are limits: I’m not sure party leaders professing a love of footie (Keir Starmer), cricket (Rishi Sunak), beer and fags (Nigel Farage), or even falling off things into water (Ed Davey) makes much, if any, difference—particularly if it looks inauthentic.

Peter Kellner: Up to a point; the tricky bit is defining that point. To a large extent elections are, rightly, about the character of leading politicians. Personal attributes inform that judgement. But they deserve some privacy, and their family a lot. The deal should be that private lives (eg sexuality) should be off limits—until or unless hypocrisy is uncovered, in which case all bets are off.

Frances Ryan: I was really struck watching Ed Davey’s party political broadcast (PPB)—about losing his parents and caring for his disabled son—how authentic it felt and the positive reaction it had on social media. Clearly it was being used to promote the Lib Dems’ social care policy but it still felt like a real insight into him as a person, who he is beyond the job, and what motivates him. That isn’t a feeling I’ve had elsewhere this election. Sunak, of course, simply doesn’t have a relatable backstory beyond “my diamond shoes are too tight.” But Starmer’s upbringing in relation to his chronically ill mother and the financial difficulties his family suffered is moving on paper (and politically useful, to be cynical) and yet he hasn’t really had that “ah” moment Davey had. Starmer’s sharing of personal experiences (“my dad was a tool maker”) actively feel focus group-driven and rather calculated.

Philip Collins: The overwhelming winner of the election so far is Ed Davey. The film about his life was the most moving PPB I have ever seen. It’s an intriguing campaign the Lib Dems are running in which they are simply trying to make us like their leader. He is having fun and it comes across. I think the other aspect of this is that politicians know the public regards them as remote and they want to show that they are not quite as distant as all that.

Starmer, by the way, is quite uncomfortable doing the personal stuff. Focus groups in fact rarely know anything about him. The tool maker father is a familiar figure to us but hardly anyone knows about it and they are surprised when they find out.

Frances Ryan: Yes, I think I read this week that only 11 per cent of the public knew what his dad did for a living. A useful reminder for any journalist that we spend far too much time thinking about politicians.

Moya Lothian-McLean: I think voters are less interested in seeing the “personal” side of politicians than they want to be wooed by a charismatic figure. But bar Nigel Farage (supposedly the most popular politician in the country, although I’m a bit sceptical of how that polling works when Keir Starmer is number two), there’s a real dearth of charismatic major players at the moment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—charisma doesn’t equal “good”—but in the void, figures like Sunak and Starmer are grappling for personal details that will make them “relatable”. They’d be a lot  more relatable if they were just honest about themselves, as the response to Ed Davey’s very raw interview shows. It's not enough to be “personal”, it has to feel real if you’re going down that route. But one slick charismatic politician trumps all the “personal”—look at Farage, who constantly dodges questions about private life (his right, but also because it would expose a lot of his hypocrisies) in favour of charming bluster and pints.

Peter Hitchens: Yes, in the case of party leaders, because our elections are now de facto presidential and the leader aspires to be a temporary monarch. People say they are voting for Starmer or Farage (or not voting for Sunak) though they’ll actually be voting for an MP whose name they can’t remember. It’s a pity. But there’s nothing to be done about it.

Matthew Lesh: It often feels like voters want something superhuman out of politicians. Not only do they expect them to be relatable and to be someone they can connect with, but also have extraordinary abilities to lead the country. This sets expectations unbelievably high and often causes disappointment. It also leads to inauthenticity, as politicians pretend to be someone they think people will like. In truth politicians are often weird people, you would have to be to want the job. Perhaps they would be better to accept rather than hide it.

Tim Bale: Yes. Moon on a stick!

Matthew d’Ancona: I think leaders have an immediate and undefinable impact upon the popular psyche that conforms to the Malcolm Gladwell “blink” phenomenon. It is often (if positive) described as “authenticity”, when it is rarely any such thing, or “straight talking” (ditto). This impression can be amended with savage speed—remember the super-popular Sunak of the furlough period, “Dishy Rishi” in many profiles. It is numinous, resistant to analysis and volatile. But it is there and it matters a lot—a lot more than the commentariat and policy world care to concede.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt: I think during times of difficulty, like the cost-of-living crisis, the public do like to hear about the personal lives of politicians. It can help give the sense that those in leadership understand the struggles the public are facing, hence Starmer has gone on a lot about his own working clsss background, and Davey is doing a lot on caring. That’s why Sunak in part is struggling to connect with the public, because there’s a sense he’s out of touch because he’s so wealthy and doesn’t understand what people are going through.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Tomorrow, our panel will be back to answer yet more burning questions about the general election. Got a question for the panel? Email