Are you normal? Do you lead an average life of 9-to-5 work and generic leisure, supporting your 2.4 children while never raising the eyebrows of your equally ordinary neighbours?
If so, you probably aren’t the type of person who would decide to throw their hat in the ring to become the next leader of the UK Labour party. Because that’s a pretty extraordinary thing to do.
I’m willing to give Owen Smith the benefit of the doubt, and accept that when he told a journalist he was an Average Joe he probably wasn’t consciously trying to contrast himself with his then rivals – child-free lesbian Angela Eagle and twice-divorced Jeremy Corbyn – but that’s not really the point. If good intentions were enough to make a successful Prime Minister then this leadership contest wouldn’t be happening.
What exactly is a normal household, and why is growing up in one something to boast about?
Smith’s comments – “I am normal. I grew up in a normal household. I’ve got a wife and three children” – would have been clumsy if he’d made them two weeks ago, but coming hot on the heels of the Tory leadership battle they sound particularly gauche. Smith may not have gone as far as Andrea Leadsom by referencing his genetic stake in society, but he fed into exactly the same narrative. What exactly is a normal household, and why is growing up in one something to boast about? And should the listener be reassured that Smith has found someone to marry him and have children with him? So did Fred West.
One might expect that, in a contest centring on questions of competence, leadership skills and that oh-so-subjective concept, the “statesmanlike” manner, candidates would be looking to highlight their exceptional qualities and relevant experience. Smith isn’t a career politician: he’s worked in TV and radio, and spent time on the “dark side” in the policy division of a pharmaceutical company. He should be presenting this work experience as an asset, not an embarrassment. Lobbying the government on behalf of a private-sector firm isn’t exactly an average job, and consequently most people won’t really know what it involves, but what it means is that Smith has been on the other side of the negotiating table. It’s far more relevant than the fact that his wife is a primary school teacher, even if she presents her dispatches from the educational front line every evening at the dinner table.
Tony Blair won elections by flashing a rictus grin , slipping into Estuary English and pretending he was just like you and me, but he demonstrably wasn’t
It would be a mistake for Smith to assume that voters are crying out for an “ordinary” leader. Yes, Tony Blair won elections by flashing a rictus grin , slipping into Estuary English and pretending he was just like you and me, but he demonstrably wasn’t. He might have inspired headlines like “Blair: just a regular bloke”, but regular blokes don’t spend the day shaking hands and spouting soundbites then go home to plot wars. Blair was not one of the Ordinary People John Legend crooned about, taking it slow and not knowing which way to go. On the contrary, he was someone who proudly stated that he had no reverse gear. He certainly lived up to that claim, but any driving instructor will vouch that if you can’t execute a parallel park, you shouldn’t be behind the wheel.
So, generously assuming for a moment that Owen Smith doesn’t sink without a trace at the end of September, what can he learn from this week’s backlash? The importance of policy over platitudes, for starters, but also the need to check his privilege rather than flaunt it and, worse, implicitly suggest his “abnormal” counterparts are somehow suspect, or weird, or even dangerous, like the paedophile nannies of Leadsom’s fevered imagination. But he should also look around and observe that voters in the UK really don’t care about the families of politicians. I can’t be the only one who was decidedly vague on the details of the Cameron clan – the number of children, let alone their names or ages – before seeing pictures of them leaving Downing Street. It’s also doubtful anyone gave two hoots that Ed Miliband was unmarried when he became Labour leader in 2010, and he himself said he felt voters were “pretty relaxed” about it … but he still hurried down the aisle with the mother of his children less than a year after stepping up to the role.
Here in Scotland, we really could not be less interested in political spouses. How many voters could pick Moira Salmond out of a line-up?
Here in Scotland, we really could not be less interested in political spouses. How many voters could pick Moira Salmond out of a line-up, and does the name Peter Murrell mean anything to Joe Bloggs? Nicola Sturgeon’s husband doesn’t even merit his own Wikipedia page, despite also being chief executive of the SNP. I spotted him at an event last month, subtly orbiting his wife as she performed her role of hand-shaking, mingling and chatting with a crowd. He glided along a a few metres away without anyone batting an eyelid, and of course this is how it should be, if an individual opts out of being a public “face”.
A politician should be judged on their own merits, not on their marital status, and it certainly shouldn’t be assumed that a husband, wife or civil partner keeps a leader grounded, level-headed or sane: the opposite could easily be true. As Donald Trump’s wife made painfully clear this week, some campaigns are better served by a spouse who is seen and not heard – but there’s a lot to be said for being invisible too.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.