It was supposedly Owen Smith’s plan to wear Jeremy Corbyn down in the Labour leadership election. A kind of death by hustings. It seems however, that it’s Smith who’s suffering from campaign fatigue. On Wednesday’s debate on the Victoria Derbyshire Show, the Pontypridd MP made a bewildering blunder, suggesting ISIS should be involved in peace talks in Syria. Such gaffes rarely change election results (Corbyn’s lead appears insurmountable anyway) but they have become a huge part of our political culture.
Gaffes are not scandals; they are more The Thick of it than House of Cards. They are invariably followed by ferocious backpedalling, profuse apologising, or – just occasionally – hiding in a disabled toilet from journalists shouting questions about Hitler. The political gaffe is peculiarly capable of proving that politicians are only human whilst highlighting just how out of touch they can be. In the current political climate, however, the main function of the gaffe is to provide some much needed light relief.
It’s a well-established fact that all politicians look ridiculous when jogging. In recent times Gordon Brown, Boris Johnson, and the human gaffe machine, Ed Milband, have all been snapped whilst out for a run. Drenched in sweat and invariably out of shape, such unfortunate MPs are ridiculed by some but for many it’s an image we can relate to. The idea, reinforced by such gaffes, that politicians might just be normal people can be powerful. It has been exploited with devastating effect by those on the far-right such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump who shun ‘political correctness’ and ‘say what everybody else is thinking’. To most though, the image of the Leader of the Opposition battling with a bacon sandwich or Danny Alexander proudly dangling a yellow box outside the Treasury remind us that our leaders are entirely fallible.
Gaffes often occur when politicians try to prove that they are ‘normal’ people. Indeed, Owen Smith recently took criticism just for using the word to describe himself. David Cameron’s infamous inability to remember what football team he pretends to support was as clear an indication as any of how out of touch he is with the British public, many of whom would forget their own name before that of their beloved side. Man of the people George Osborne fooled no one when he tweeted a picture of himself eating a burger whilst preparing a budget. The offending sandwich came of course from a high-end chain. Such clear attempts at spin only serve to reinforce the public’s impression of the ‘Westminster bubble’, separated from the real world. A bubble in which Boris Johnson dismissed his £250,000 second salary as “chicken feed”.
In this age of Brexit turmoil, a Labour party tearing itself apart, humanitarian crises and an unprecedented terror threat, political gaffes can at least provide a bit of light relief. On 28th April, Twitter users celebrate ‘Ed Balls day’, marking the former Shadow Chancellor’s first tweet. Ed Miliband’s “Hell yes!” has spawned numerous memes, as has the infamous ‘Edstone’. From Boris Johnson swinging aimlessly on a zip wire to John McDonnell reading from Mao’s Little Red Book, politicians are continuously finding new ways to demonstrate their fallibility with their calamitous exploits often outliving their careers. Nick Clegg is remembered more for his apology video, which spawned a musical spoof, than his public service; likewise, Neil Kinnock for falling over on a beach, and Gordon Brown for ‘Bigotgate’.
Clearly there is a difference between fumbling over foreign policy and struggling with a sandwich; some gaffes are indicators that their perpetrator is not fit for office whilst most merely offer us a break from the misery of modern politics. The more trivial errors remind us that MPs are only human, although the nature of such mistakes often reinforce how detached many of them are from the real world.
Most gaffes show politicians as they really are or saying what they really think, perhaps that alone is enough reason to embrace the gaffe and bring a little laughter back into politics.