Chicken costumes and political leadership

Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at ACEVO asks what kind of leadership should we expect from our politicians?

I was appalled last week when, in the midst of the greatest political and social upheaval this country has experienced in decades, representatives of the Conservative Party spent time and resource, not only mocking up a photo of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in a chicken suit, but giving out chicken to lobby journalists in a further childish attempt to goad the opposition leader into voting for a general election.

These haven’t been the only examples of woeful leadership from senior politicians in recent weeks. In a separate incident aimed at Corbyn, Boris Johnson shouted the sexist and homophobic jibe ‘big girl’s blouse’ across the floor of the House of Commons. Earlier in the week shadow chancellor John McDonnell responded to heckling by Boris Johnson by saying ‘Last time he was shouting at someone, they had to call the police’ in reference to the police being called by neighbours concerned about shouting coming from the flat Boris Johnson shared with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds before he became prime minister.

When I first saw the photo of Corbyn in a chicken suit I assumed it was a parody account but a quick Google search showed that the chicken suit is not new to politics. During the 1997 general election campaign senior Conservatives employed a man to wear a chicken suit and appear at Labour events to call Tony Blair a chicken for refusing to a televised debate with John Major. In 2010 and 2015 the Labour supporting Daily Mirror hired a person to dress up in a chicken suit and follow David Cameron to campaigning engagements.

Employing a person to dress up in chicken suit has even been a storyline in The West Wing, an American political television series (and the best television you will ever watch). In the 2005 episode a man is employed by the staff of one political candidate to dress up like a chicken and following two other candidates around calling them chicken for not agreeing to a debate. Confronting the man in the chicken suit, one characters says:

“Do you realize how pathetic this is? Do your parents know you’re doing this? Pakistan could be arming Nigeria, a potential Muslim coup, and you’re pulling shaving-cream-and-balloon-style pranks. If this is his idea of democracy, Matt Santos belongs in a fraternity house not a debate.”

I have the same question. Is dressing up like a chicken to mock opposing politicians the standard of democracy we should accept? Clearly it has been at least tacitly accepted by many for over 20 years.  

I don’t think it’s possible to answer the question about what kind of democracy we want without answering the question of what kind of leadership we want. Politics should be about public benefit and public service, the same things that drive civil society. Great leadership, as ACEVO has said before, is based on relationships, connections, authenticity, growth, commitment, trustworthiness and a desire to improve. When we see leadership that fails to aspire to these standards we should reject it.

Thankfully there are already MPs from all parties that are demonstrating leadership focused on public service. Last week 21 Conservative MPs chose to vote in support of preventing no-deal Brexit, knowing that this decision would result in the whip being withdrawn and likely de-selection at the next general election, thus ending, or at least derailing their political careers. The bullying tactics employed by the prime minister is not representative of leadership or democracy I want.

That large parts of the country are hungry for a different kind of leadership is further demonstrated by the viral video of Labour MP, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi asking the Prime Minister to apologise for making derogatory and racist remarks about Muslim women.

But how do we get more good leaders? And when those leaders enter politics how can they be encouraged to say and progress? Leadership can be hard and it can be lonely. It is even harder and lonelier if you are fighting against a system that wasn’t built to include you, and is disproportionately made up of people who want you to act, sound, and look and be less like you and more like them.

Last week former Labour MP Luciana Berger joined the Liberal Democrats. She said in an interview that she got to know Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrat, through a WhatsApp group for MPs with babies. I am glad that those with shared experiences have mechanisms to support and connect with each other, not because it could lead to them changing political parties, but because underrepresented people with shared lived experience coming together is the foundation of most social progress.

If we want a better leadership and better democracy then we need to support those leaders who already showing authenticity, trustworthiness, kindness, commitment and vision. And we need to support organisations and campaigns whose purpose is to enable people with different experiences, voices and expertise to participate in public life, for example Patchwork Foundation, 50:50 parliament and Fawcett Society’s Local and Equal campaign.

Over the last three and a half years there has been a sustained spotlight on the leadership exhibited by MPs of all parties. I hope that this scrutiny will increase the number of voices calling for better behaviour and greater representation in parliament. Our political leaders have to resolve Brexit, end austerity, reverse rising poverty, and work in partnership with other countries to quite literally stop the destruction of our planet. For existing and future politicians it should go without saying that the era of the chicken suit is over.

Photo by Eva Dang on Unsplash

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