Spectator columnist Charles Moore caused quite the kerfuffle a fortnight ago with his suggestion that the looks of Labour leadership candidates Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall might play some role in whether they could win an election.
His column bears full reading for context, but the section that irritated the Twitterati went like this:
“So what are the right looks? Possibly Ms Cooper has them — there is something quite appealing about her slightly French crop and black and white dresses, especially when she is being so boring that one looks rather than listens. But she is so contrived and cautious that there is no touch of appealing vulnerability. Ms Kendall looks like a nice person, but not in a distinctive way.”
In the latest issue of the Speccy Cooper continues the backlash against what she terms “the most hilarious old-buffer politics”:
“The most absurd and outrageous thing. I wasn’t sure whether he said that I might — I just might! — have the looks. It’s like: thanks Charles! I couldn’t quite work out if his argument was because he thought Tory backbenchers would fancy me like they had Margaret Thatcher. You know, that’s one demographic I’m really not appealing to.”
And at the time Kendall was equally unimpressed:
Sometime in the 1950s, it would appear… https://t.co/BwEIZ7O7QU
— Liz Kendall (@leicesterliz) August 23, 2015
No doubt it was a mistake for Moore to single out the women candidates whilst leaving the appearance of Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham unremarked upon, aside from a sneer at the former’s “dull beard”. But the question of how much looks matter in winning elections was lost in the virtue signalling contest, and is rather interesting.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of pop psychology will tell you that looks affect how fast your career will advance, in part because people assume that good-looking people are more talented generally because of a phenomenon known as the “halo effect”.
How this applies to politics is a little more complex. Taller men seem to do better in American presidential debates than shorter ones, for instance, whilst other research has argued we infer signs of competence from less than one second of studying a candidate’s face.
Perhaps the most worrying effect of a candidate’s appearance is that it seems to influence the less well informed more readily than the better informed. And those not reading political blogs when they should be working almost certainly outnumber those that are.
Many of the above studies tend to focus on men, who still dominate politics in both America and Britain. But women, whose appearance tends to attract more attention than the grey besuited men, probably face different problems when it comes to looks and elections.
A study from Name It Change It, a campaigning group, argued that whenever the media comments on a woman’s appearance her poll ratings suffer. A study backed by several universities in America also concluded that women who appear less feminine can suffer electorally, but only in more conservative states.
Other researchers have criticised studies like those above, arguing they fail to control for other variables or that ultimately looks are outweighed by other factors in political decision making. But every pol who bothers to wash their hair before a television appearance must somewhat agree that looks matter.
Image Credit – Liz Kendall, Bristol in August 2015, by Rwendland