Home Politics Timothy Kirkhope: “Americans are almost always better at politics than British”

Timothy Kirkhope: “Americans are almost always better at politics than British”

Timothy Kirkhope: “Americans are almost always better at politics than British”

Timothy Kirkhope, Pawel Rogalinski– In America you need to raise a considerable amount of money for elections. And getting people to pay money is even more difficult than getting them to vote – says Timothy Kirkhope, British MEP in interview conducted by Pawel Rogalinski.

Pawel Rogalinski: – How do you think, why is it that some politicians can maintain popularity for a very long time (e.g. Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair), whereas others, whenever gain power, lose it very quickly?

Timothy Kirkhope: – I think that being a good politician is quite a complex thing. A good politician has to combine a great number of features. First of all a good politician has to know about people. They have to understand people, they have to have had experiences before  entering into  political life, experiences of life itself, of meeting many people of different backgrounds… If you take a look at Margaret Thatcher for instance: she was a scientist, she came from a fairly humble background, she had met many people from all walks of life before she even became an MP, and she understood how people think. This is a good feature of being a good politician. You must know how people think.

– Simply to be one of them…

– The next question you have to answer is do you decide you are going to be a leader of people or are you going to be a person who responds to people. Getting that combination, getting it right somehow is the main thing. People like Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher were leaders, because actually led thought, but they only do that on the basis of what they thought people would tolerate.

– And what about bad politicians?

– Bad politicians are those who have very firm and fixed views which they then push hard regardless of what the effect is on the people they represent. So they go away from the people. They may express their views strongly, but they won’t actually have the people with them, which is what is necessary. In the case of Thatcher and to some extent Blair, for some time anyway they both had the people with them. The other thing about it is that politicians have to have a very tuned in sense of humour – without it they are lost. And both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, in their own way, had a very good sense of humour. They understood the frailties and difficulties and so on. And what is also very important: you have to be disciplined. And I suppose the very final thing is that you have to have a personality, which nowadays is much more important from the media perspective. You have to be able to sell yourself through television, radio, newspapers. Margaret Thatcher came into politics in a time when a television was in its infancy, but she used that medium very strongly indeed. And if you are good at that, then you get your message across clearly, as well as your personality.

– Do you think a politician can learn charisma or is it an inborn trait?

– A politician cannot learn charisma. They either have it or they don’t. What they can do though is learn techniques. They should learn to use the media properly, learn how to conduct themselves on television for instance It is for example important to dress properly. People often don’t understand or don’t remember what a politician has said on a television programme. They know that the politician was on the programme, because he is a character or is charismatic. They know what the politician was wearing, the colour of the tie, the colour of the jacket. And they will remind the politician of that when they meet. But if a politician then asks the person to say what they thought of what was said, very few people ever remember. They remember the visual impact. The same now applies to social media: politicians need to learn the technicalities of being involved with that.

– Do you think British politicians manipulate or use persuasion methods in order to gain and maintain popularity?

– When you say “manipulate”, are they manipulating the people that actually produce the media or are they manipulating the people themselves, the whole of the people, the people who watch the television or listen to the radio? Politicians are, by their nature, manipulative.

– But I mean… even NLP or conscious visual manipulation, the colour of your tie or jacket…

– Yes, yes, but whether politicians are always aware of it? As for the gestures – I knew a politician, who was not a greatly inspiring speaker. He was a leading politician in Britain, I won’t name him. But he had a problem. He spoke well, on good subjects, but he was very inanimate. He never moved. He stood rigidly with his hands at his sides and spoke. And his voice wasn’t very characterful either – it didn’t lift, it didn’t drop. So the media people said: “We’ve got to do something with you”. They taught him how to move his hands to express himself. Moving the fist around, moving the arm around, swiping it across left to right or right to left. And from then on he was transformed – again, because people were visually connecting, looking at him and thinking: “He means what he says”. So the question “How you manipulate” has many technical issues here the politicians should understand. And most leading politicians do understand that.

– Can you give some example of a prime minister, who was a bad politician in that sense?

– I cannot give any in a modern sense, because for the last twenty years or so all our politicians had people working with them, who are media people or people who know about presentation.

– And what about Gordon Brown, for instance?

– Yes, I agree, Gordon Brown didn’t come across particularly well. Perhaps you are right. He didn’t gesticulate well, he didn’t express himself very well, his speaking was difficult to understand. Yes, it is true. But I think in recent times it is less likely. Looking back in history though, you see some of the old, the pre-war newsreels for instance, where some of our politicians came into politics simply because they were rich people, had a lot of land and became politicians representing people. They were very stiff and starchy and they didn’t know how to deal with ordinary people much. So they used to stand very still in their pinstripe suits and just-speak-to-the-peo-ple-like-that.

– And that’s the end of their career. Politicians nowadays are better trained.

– Yes, they are better trained because they have to be, but manipulation is also key, you are right. Manipulating the senses. Because if you cannot manipulate people’s senses and get them actually taking an interest, then you aren’t as good a politician as someone who can.

– How is the UK different from the USA in terms of popularity? Do you think American politicians use the same methods as the British ones to be popular, or maybe they tend to manipulate more?

– Most of stuff I learnt about presentation and about organisation in a political party, I got from the United States. They were ahead of the game in everything.

– Can you give some examples?

– We never used bumper stickers on our cars for elections or did anything on our cars for elections. For years, years, years… I had a book – it was a Republican Party manual on how to run an election. It had all of these in there. And we started doing it, e.g. presentation in a street. You stand in a street and meet people. Well, I introduced a thing, which was actually based on an eight foot high waste pipe, which I got from a plumber, the flag on the top with my name. And I got a colleague just to stand like a Roman centurion holding the pipe. But what he did was to give a focus point in the middle of a pavement in the middle of a shopping centre. Because everybody walking there could see this name above the crowd. And then they see this circle of people working the street. That was an American thing. We didn’t do it in Britain. I know it sounds an obvious thing, doesn’t it? But, no.

– Interesting. Why is it like that? Why America?

– The politicians there, the congressmen, are elected every two years – not like us, who are elected every four or five years. If you are elected every two years, you are almost constantly electioneering. So you need to build up momentum. And also the other thing about it is that in America you need to raise a considerable amount of money. In our country you’re not allowed to spend too much money on elections, but in America there is no limit. So you’ve got to raise a lot of money, you’ve got to go and encourage people to pay. And getting people to pay money is more difficult than getting them to vote.

– So constant electioneering and political campaigns?

– There was always that: television was there earlier and in America it was used more for political purposes and there were no restrictions on political advertising. From the very outset American television was commercial, whereas most of our television services were state-owned and controlled and did not allow political things. Even now you’re not allowed to use television for politics unless it’s balanced. In America that has not been a problem. And you can see some of the ads that are run, some that are very nasty but there has always been more that kind of thing going on. I suppose there has always been an emphasis there, so Americans know about politics, they do politics and they are almost always better at it than we are.

– How do you, as an MEP, take care of your popularity in the UK?

– We have to use now social media. I was always a bit sceptical about it. It does have its downsides, but I think by and by we need to use it. We need to do the work for people. People will complain, people have problems, people ask questions. The good politician is someone who actually deals with those issues. He has to get research done, you have to actually take up their cases with ministers, you actually have to do things for people. And you have to be out and about in between elections at loads of events. Always be seen at important events, go to lots of your own party events of course, but be seen around and maybe attach yourself to one campaign or another about some big issue. But I am saying – in between. You have to do work as well. You cannot just have an election, three weeks for an election, and then do nothing for four years.

– Thank you very much for the conversation.


Interview by Pawel Rogalinski
Brussels, European Parliament,


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