If you haven’t been living under a rock (or in the Hartley Library) for the last week, you’re probably aware that the Labour Party are looking for a new leader.
Ed Miliband has packed his bags and jetted off to Ibiza as he begins his career as the ex-Leader of the Party following their election defeat. The leadership race is set to be one of the most interesting in recent memory, with no real stand-out candidate. Dan Jarvis was widely tipped as the popular choice but almost immediately ruled himself out on account of not wanting to be away from his family for long periods, (the mother of his eldest two children died in 2010 and he has a young child with his new partner). On Friday another front-runner, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, withdrew from the campaign only three days after announcing his candidacy. He released a statement in which he claimed that the increased scrutiny he had been under for the last week had been too much and that a leadership bid “is not right for me or the people close to me.” It has now emerged that not only had Umunna’s mother been doorstepped by tabloid newspapers, but the family of his girlfriend had allegedly been receiving unwelcome press advances.
How much scrutiny leaders of political parties come under is something which is often overlooked. A lot of people argue that it’s all part of the job – if you run to be the leader of a party then you should expect there to be a significant media presence in your life. To an extent this is correct, party leaders have chosen to put themselves in the spotlight; but their families have not. The last two Labour leaders, Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, have both come under this kind of media invasion of their family lives. There was the memorable Daily Mail expose of Miliband’s father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, under the banner headline ‘THE MAN WHO HATED BRITAIN.’ In 2006 The Sun ran a story revealing Brown’s four-month old son Fraser had been diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. When giving evidence to the Leverson enquiry, Brown said he had been in tears when Sun editor Rebekah Brooks informed him they were running the story, and he maintains that he did not give The Sun access to his son’s medical records.
However, the attacks do not just involve family members. Seemingly, if you want to become a party leader now you better have been living like a hermit all your life. The press will dredge through your history to find anything that they can use against you. Some of the more popular examples of this come from the right of the political spectrum – David Cameron, George Osborne and both of the Johnson brothers have been attacked for their associations with the infamous Bullingdon Dining Club at Oxford, whilst letters obtained by the press in 2013 alleged that a young Nigel Farage was a “fascist” who sang Hitler-youth songs while at school. While the allegations against Farage are somewhat unsavoury, should we really be judging our leaders on their teenage years? I for sure would not want to be judged on my actions as an adolescent, and I’m sure that many previous Prime Ministers did things in their youth that wouldn’t be considered wholly sensible, but they were lucky to live before our age of savage tabloid journalism.
I’ve already mentioned the Bullingdon Club in reference to several leading Conservatives, but it stands to reason that if you want to be a party leader you better not have been born into a rich family. If you come from money and you’re a Tory then you’re out of touch; if you come from money in the Labour Party then you’re a hypocrite for arguing in favour of greater social equality. To some extent if you aren’t from money and in the Labour Party then you’re also in trouble since any call for the rich to bear more of a burden gets you labelled as jealous of the success of the highest earners. At least Tories from more working class backgrounds can get away with being supporters of ‘aspiration’ – a la John Major.
This is a media creation, of course. With tabloids now hungry for the next big splash they’ll go to any extent in order to smear leading politicians and sell more copies. Anyone wanting to become leader of a political party has to take into account what the press could use against them, and if they can cope with having every area of their life scrutinised. They have to really think about the people close to them being subjected to press attention they haven’t even asked for. Umunna’s decision may seem strange, but if you examine the pressures and scrutiny under which we put our political leaders it is not that difficult to understand why he has chosen to withdraw. He’s only 36 years old after all, this will probably not be his last opportunity to run for leader, but it’s disturbing that a politician of obvious talent feels that he and his family would not be comfortable if he were to be the party leader – whatever his reasoning may be. As a society we sometimes seem to forget that politicians are humans too, and that everyone makes decisions at some point in their life that they regret later on. This should have zero standing in whether or not they would make a good party leader.