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The most infantilising election of all It's time to make politics serious again

A very serious man highlighting something equally serious (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A very serious man highlighting something equally serious (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)


July 5, 2024   5 mins

How do you feel about that most English of vices: gentle whimsy? Personally, I can’t abide unusually shaped teapots, cat cartoons, Gilbert and Sullivan operas, London Marathon costumes, or jokey books you’re supposed to read on the toilet. For the same reason, I was probably never going to be the ideal recipient of Sir Ed Davey’s electoral campaign — now thankfully concluded. Still: as the sun sets on a Tory government, and Davey shakily regains his land legs after six weeks of plummeting through the air and being catapulted into cold water, it’s worth considering what precedent his extremely strange, babyish campaign set for British politics, and how we might avert its repetition in future.

In the run up to the election, the papers mostly gave Davey an easy ride (as it were), seemingly unwilling to be scathing about what might yet turn out to be the inspired manoeuvres of an emerging national treasure. International media outlets didn’t help, seizing the opportunity to resurrect one of their favourite national stereotypes, the loveable British eccentric. And another factor enabling the horror to hide in plain sight was the general level of cringeworthy memification throughout the campaign, with Dawn Butler rapping, Jeremy Corbyn pretending he knows how to wash a car (or indeed what a car is), and Nigel Farage garnering 8.5 million TikTok views while doing an Eminem impression. Viewed in passing, the Lib Dem approach just looked like more of the same, but in fact it was much worse.

Of course, politics has long included gimmicks from MPs hoping to make a splash: who could forget David Cameron being pulled along by Norwegian huskies in 2006, or the much-derided “Edstone” in 2015? And then there was the biggest and most cunning stunt of all during the  2012 London Olympics:  the ne plus ultra of making a self-referential tit of yourself, apparently endearing Boris Johnson to a large part of the public for a generation, and followed up by various daft photo opportunities when he was running for national office. But even those ridiculous exploits were as nothing to the single-minded intensity of the Davey project, which saw him pratfalling in various locations around the country for a full six weeks: not so much offering lots of speeches punctuated by the odd bit of shenanigans, as 90% shenanigans interspersed with occasional bits of chat and weeping to camera about his dead parents.

Some of the appearances were justified by party masterminds as being vaguely connected to a particular policy objective — though, rather like their leader’s Zumba dancing, the explanations given were often a bit of an awkward stretch. Bungee-jumping in Eastbourne was supposed to tempt people into trying something heartstoppingly terrifying for the very first time: namely, voting Liberal Democrat, which seemed to be saying the quiet part out loud. Repeatedly falling from a surfboard into the Cornish foam was allegedly done in order to highlight the problem of sewage in our seas, though the degree of enthusiasm Davey conveyed for the experience tended to suggest exactly the opposite. Careering down a waterslide was about improving mental health for young people — yet it remained unclear how incipient adolescent anxiety would be improved by the sight of a 58-year old political leader perched precariously on a rubber ring, gurning ecstatically like a giant toddler as he hurtled down the slope.

Another explanation for Davey’s behaviour resembled the sort of justification sometimes offered by Just Stop Oil activists or, for that matter, school shooters: namely, it was the only way to get media attention for their cause, otherwise known at Lib Dem HQ as winning the “air war”.  This defence would perhaps have worked better had more people been able to work out what the cause was supposed to be, exactly. And in fact — like Farage’s memes on behalf of Reform — the main point of the appearances seemed to be to convey something about the leader in particular, and nothing very specific about his party and their policies at all.

“Another explanation for Davey’s behaviour resembled the sort of justification sometimes offered by Just Stop Oil activists…”

Yet even here, the level of information offered was remedial. We mostly learnt that Davey doesn’t take himself too seriously: “I’m quite happy to have some fun,” he declared, shortly after skidding downhill in Wales on a bike with legs cartoonishly akimbo, just in case anyone had missed the point. Equally, we discovered that behind the smile lies heartache, with several affecting personal tragedies in his past. In a video, interviews, and press releases, Davey saw Starmer’s touching tale of a disabled mother and raised him  two dead parents at a young age, a dead Nanna, and a disabled son for whom he has significant caring responsibilities. So heavily was the latter mined for relevance to a manifesto pledge to increase the Carer’s Allowance, it sometimes seemed as if the policy had been designed around Davey personally.

It’s hard to be rude about someone whose public persona is so guileless: an enthusiastic, kindly, hammy Church of England type, as written by Richard Curtis on a good day and Armando Iannucci on a bad one. But politics isn’t care work nor is it a sitcom. The fact remains that despite some of the positive headlines it attracted, Davey’s CBeebies-style campaign indicated a staggeringly infantilising attitude towards the electorate. It seemed clear that either senior members in the Lib Dems are childish morons, or that they believe that voters are.

Perhaps it was assumed that by minimising the use of words altogether in their campaign material, they could maximise voter appeal while avoiding gaffes and the spectre of future broken promises. Political slogans already tend to be vacant and indecipherable anyway, allowing hearers to project whatever they want into the void. Labour’s key message argued gnomically for “Change”, while the Conservatives went with “Clear Plan. Bold Action. Secure Future” — though it was a testimony to their history of incompetence that even this vague statement of intent seemed patently unachievable.

Yet there are also signs that Lib Dem strategists assumed that Davey’s clowning would be of interest to middle-class former Tory strongholds in particular, stuffed as they are presumably thought to be with soft-hearted, financially insulated types, low on political analysis but big on heartwarming feels. This seems indicated by what they called the “Gail’s strategy” — targeting wealthy Southern towns with a Gail’s bakery in the vicinity for a bit of the Davey magic, anticipating these as the places with the biggest chance of shifting disgruntled voters towards Liberal Democrats. One might question the sagacity of this plan on a number of levels: not least because what makes a sourdough-lover from Chichester smile ruefully or wipe away an empathic tear is likely to grate heavily upon a sausage roll-lover from Bolton. But there’s also the fact that even in the most insufferably smug of Southern enclaves, chock full of Dryrobe-wearing wankers nursing spelt loaves and worrying about property development in their area, most voters are just not that stupid.

The most likely explanation of any Lib Dem victories emerging today is that people were utterly fed up with the Tories, not that their heads were positively turned by the sight of G-forces acting on the face of an otherwise rather dull man on a rollercoaster. If anything, for all we know, the inanity of the campaign might have worked against the party: even among the positive press coverage, there were signs of ambivalence in onlookers. Meanwhile, there is also evidence that younger voters found the use of electoral memes patronising and off-putting generally. It would be good if pollsters would make an attempt to confirm these hypotheses now, for fear that correlation is lazily taken to indicate causation and we are subjected to even more fatuous levels of japery in five years’ time.

Satisfying as it may be on some atavistic level, I don’t want to see political figures shot into the air, toppling into water, or bouncing around on giant inflatables; I’d rather just hear them talk about what they intend to do and how they will do it. In a supposedly democratic society, it doesn’t seem a lot to ask. There’s a lot of work to do in the next four years, and many massive challenges lie ahead; not least the multipartisan challenge of making politics serious again. In whatever other ways politicians will fail spectacularly, I wonder if they can at least manage that.


Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.
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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
17 days ago

Like most British people, I warm to true eccentrics – people who are simply and naturally different …. and unashamedly so.
But nothing gets over my wellingtons more than the “studied eccentricities” of those who are trying quite so hard to stand out from the crowd, by being (dread word) “Zany”.
Ed Davey deliberately set out to make himself look like an absolute ar5e – and in that endeavour he was supremely successful.
If his ludicrous stunts persuaded anyone that Davey or his party were any more electable than they might have been without the buffoonery, then those voters convict themselves publicly of being halfwits.
If it’s fair to say that a country gets the politicians it deserves – then I cannot fathom how we got to a point where we’ve deserved the merry-go of clowns and 2nd rate mediocrities who’ve managed to clamber to positions of influence in most of our political parties. .
God but we live in drear and uninspiring times.

Martin M
Martin M
17 days ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I hear what you are saying! Boris – Real. Davey – Fake.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
17 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Boris – real ? The man who messes up his own hair before a photo is taken ?

Martin M
Martin M
17 days ago

Oh, and of course Starmer’s hair greases itself back like that naturally?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
17 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Yep; he’s definitely had a bit of a smoothie makeover. He’ll be on the front of GQ next month wearing pistachio slacks.

Buck Rodgers
Buck Rodgers
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

“Boris – real”
Are you serious? The entirety of the man, including his name, is a persona.

From time to time I post here, wondering how in the name of sanity anyone is still convinced by the Boris Johnson show; maybe you can enlighten me?

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
16 days ago
Reply to  Buck Rodgers

He was christened Alexander Boris, so is quite entitled to use a middle name, as my husband has.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
17 days ago

Labour’s key message argued gnomically for “Change”, while the Conservatives went with “Clear Plan. Bold Action. Secure Future”
The nice thing about that slogan is you can shuffle those adjectives around as much as you’d like and it still works. We’re approaching electioneering of sufficient vapidity that in the near present no doubt all campaign posters will just consist of a pic of the candidate grinning like a chimpanzee with the word GOOD printed in 256-point font above him.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
17 days ago

The Conservatives’ one is positively Orwellian, inasmuch as it is almost exactly what they didn’t have, didn’t do, and didn’t leave.
Ignorance is strength, indeed.
I think Labour couldn’t be arsed to do any serious thinking since they knew they’d win, and basically asked a chatbot for a slogan that represented what the country most likely wanted.

Martin M
Martin M
17 days ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

I think they were careful not to show what they were really thinking, for fear of scaring people.

Martin M
Martin M
17 days ago

Well, Obama had a poster with his face, and the word “Hope” underneath.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
15 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Same tactic, it means anything and nothing simultaneously.

Mick Davis
Mick Davis
14 days ago
Reply to  Studio Largo

Doublethink

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
17 days ago

Ed Davey’s aquatic larking was a distraction to avoid awkward questioning about why he was asleep at the helm when he was postal affairs minister during the Horizon scandal.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
16 days ago

Ahh, the Biden defense.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
16 days ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

What? “I was asleep at the time”?

Veronica Lowe
Veronica Lowe
16 days ago

How was it that the then Director of Public Prosecutions, one Keir Starmer, – knew nothing of the Post Office prosecutions?

Claire D
Claire D
17 days ago

As the Liberal Democrats have won over 40 60 seats it seems as if infantilism as a strategy has been quite successful for them.
What does infantilism and voting for a clown mean for us as a country ? It sort of suggests stupidity.

Martin M
Martin M
17 days ago
Reply to  Claire D

Those were not “pro-Lib Dem” votes, they were “we think the Tories suck, but we’re too scared to vote for Starmer” votes.

Claire D
Claire D
17 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Yes I agree, and also people reluctant to vote Reform. In which case I take back my suggestion of stupidity which is probably not fair.
I still don’t like the infantilism though.

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

‘And we’d never get invited to dinner again if we voted Reform’.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Not exactly. It was the anti- Brexit vote.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
17 days ago

“And then there was the biggest and most cunning stunt of all during the 2012 London Olympics […]”
Well, I misread that…
The bright side of Ed Davey’s “larking around” was that it gave Matt some great material to work with, there were some absolute classics:
https://x.com/MattCartoonist/status/1807818147581309038
https://telegraph.newsprints.co.uk/39986185-matt-cartoon-water-co-there-should-be-a-limit-to-how-often-the-lib-dems-are-allowed-to-dump-ed-davey-into-lakes-and-rivers-there-should-be-a-limit-to-how-ofter-the-lib-dems-are-allowed-to/

Martin M
Martin M
17 days ago

I think the seriousness of Davey’s campaign antics are commensurate with the seriousness of the Lib Dems as a political entity.

Kevan Hudson
Kevan Hudson
17 days ago

Since the differences between political parties in the West are marginal we will see more of this. Yeah Uniparty!
More partisanship and more stupidity.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
17 days ago

The people I know who vote Lib Dem are the kind of people who complain politics is too divisive and there shouldn’t be any controversies and everything should be depoliticised etc. in other words, the total wet blanket vote. Therefore Davey behaving like a boring clown was totally on point for these voters.

John Riordan
John Riordan
17 days ago

Lovely word “divisive”, isn’t it? It’s like “problematic”, a word that really means “something I disagree with but can’t challenge directly”.

Divisive in this context actually means “something I don’t like but is popular with others so I can’t complain about it democratically and win the argument”.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
17 days ago

I’m reading Tim Lankester’s book “Inside Thatcher’s Monetarist Experiment”. Throughout the 70s and 80s politicians were struggling with running the economy. They made lots of mistakes but there was an amazing level of intellectual debate. In particular, they were trying to figure out the link between the money supply and inflation.

They seemed often very impressive intelligent people. Whatever happened.

JOHN KANEFSKY
JOHN KANEFSKY
16 days ago

“Whatever happened” is that the Oxford PPE crowd and their lookalikes took over. Almost no-one with a successful trade union, business or science background would want to be an MP these days, so the Daleks were able seamlessly to take over while we (myself included) were asleep at the wheel.
I’m thinking of going back to sleep for a decade. I’m hoping that when I wake up there will be competent and experienced people in Parliament and England will be playing attractive football.
“Norfolk enchants”, as the saying goes

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
16 days ago
Reply to  JOHN KANEFSKY

Its not rocket science. All they have to do is cut half the government and allow people to supply the services. I figure it would save 40%.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
16 days ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

From faraway Argentina, Milei enters the chat 😉

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
16 days ago
Reply to  JOHN KANEFSKY

Who is going to want to be in frontline British politics with the way the public and media treat them? The media has lost it’s grip on reality by being desperate to court young people. Hence infantilisation.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
17 days ago

Great article making several important points but chiefly underlining why Lib Dem’s would be incredibly stupid to believe that this “eccentricity”will pay , even in the short term or that their temporary benefit from the Tory shambles will be long lived . The serious realignment is on the Right ( where One Nation Tories are finished) and within the middle and working classes, where support for Labour is not growing but support for Reform patently is.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
17 days ago

Come on Kathleen you didn’t really want to read the LD manifesto or listen to Ed Davey talk about anything.

Paul Watson
Paul Watson
17 days ago

Suspect that Davey’s antics were to distract from the idiocy of much of the LD’s manifesto especially the science-defying self ID stance

Mike SampleName
Mike SampleName
17 days ago

Ed Davey strikes me as the 1990s “I’m mad, me!” guy at a party who sticks straws up his nose in an attempt to be interesting.

A D Kent
A D Kent
17 days ago

His performance was no more infantile than that of Rachel Reeves’s one as a very serious person talking very seriously about their entirely bogus ‘fiscal realities’.

Davey was the Chegwin to her Philbin.

Chris Carter
Chris Carter
17 days ago

Why the distaste for Gilbert & Sullivan? Their operas/operettas are for the most part masterpieces.
I believe Kathleen Stock in the end voted Labour so alas she is just another carbon copy left winger, albeit one who happens to have sensible views on “gender”.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
16 days ago
Reply to  Chris Carter

It’s interesting that Stock regards G&S as ‘whimsy’: in their day, they were intended (and received) as satirical masterpieces, whether criticising major institutions such as Parliament, the Law, the police, the armed forces and monarchy, or fashionable literary or cultural tropes. Because so much has changed, the satire no longer hits its target – but the operas certainly aren’t equivalent to cat teapots!

John Riordan
John Riordan
17 days ago

“Satisfying as it may be on some atavistic level, I don’t want to see political figures shot into the air, toppling into water, or bouncing around on giant inflatables; I’d rather just hear them talk about what they intend to do and how they will do it. In a supposedly democratic society, it doesn’t seem a lot to ask.”

Yes, Kathleen. but you’re intelligent and can reasonably expect to be able to discern good ideas from bad ones through informed debate. I like to think I’m reasonably capable of this too.

But a significant proportion of the electorate is less capable of this and tends to vote according to priorities reached by different means. This is not to say their votes are somehow less legitimate, I hasten to add, I’m just saying that the democracy works despite its imperfections, sometimes it works because of those imperfections, and this is arguably the latter kind of imperfection.

General Store
General Store
16 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

She’s as intelligent as a chicken inviting the fox into the coop

John Riordan
John Riordan
16 days ago
Reply to  General Store

A bit harsh. She seems as sharp as a razor to me.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
15 days ago
Reply to  General Store

Mmmmmmm….

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
17 days ago

“people were utterly fed up with the Tories”

Starmer has managed a lesser % vote share than even the electoral poison of Corbynism, but ended up with a mega majority.

Meanwhile, Reform got more votes than Davey but a fraction of the seats. The Greens likewise got masses of votes but few MPs.

Something needs to change.

Point of Information
Point of Information
17 days ago

“it remained unclear how incipient adolescent anxiety would be improved by the sight of a 58-year old political leader perched precariously on a rubber ring, gurning ecstatically like a giant toddler as he hurtled down the slope”.

Although worth a shot? Next time my (or your kid) complains about anxiety, sit down and watch Ed Davey with them to cheer them up… bet they feel better pretty quickly.

George Venning
George Venning
16 days ago

I have precisely zero time for the LibDems. But people don’t vote form them for the photo-ops – they’re not Count Binface. They vote for them because they stand for a legitimate position in British politics (centre left and avowedly pro-European).
Ed Davey’s campaign actually highlighted something of importance – that the press will not give them the representation they deserve, because their importance is deemed to be proportionate to their share of the seats rather than their share of the vote. They were having to send Davey on a six week outward bound holiday just to get the press to show up.
A quick reminder. In 2019, LibDems got 15% of the seats that their vote share would have implied.
In 2024, they got fewer votes than Reform but 15 times the seats. And that is the way that I have seen those two results presented multiple times already – the LibDems have benefitted whilst Reform have been screwed. What I have yet to see a pundit admit is that, even on this basis, The LibDems still only got 77% of the seats that their vote share suggests they should have and Reform got a miserable 4%. Both parties and all their 7.5m voters got screwed.
The only people other than Labour who got a boost were Sinn Feinand they don’t even seat their MPs.
My point here is that votes and outcomes are now so poorly correllated that British democracy can no longer be said to function.
The only other country in Europe that uses unmodified FPTP is Belarus. And at least thoise guys elect both of their chambers. Our democracy is less robust than Belarus!
And that’s even less funny than Ed Davey falling off a bike.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
16 days ago

Why can’t the people who are supposed to manage serious business just do that? The governor of my state, Ron DeSantis, is a superb manager. Florida is thriving almost to the point where we’re running out of building materials and putting up hold-on-few- years-will-ya? signs. He’s not an amusing personality for the media hyenas. He has a real job to do.
Too many politicians seem like parodies of the parody, The Thick of It. Maybe if they ditched their advisors and PR teams and just did their freaking jobs they wouldn’t be such contemptible *ssh*les. Then again, they were probably contemptible *ssh*les before they went public.

Steve Crowther
Steve Crowther
16 days ago

Just love your writing, it never fails to make me laugh out loud. This time it was the Dryrobe-wearing wankers, despite my being one (though I claim immunity as I live in the village it was invented in).

General Store
General Store
16 days ago

Kathleen – I was so disappointed with your comments on election night. Really quite ….hmmm stupid. For a philosopher you seem to have very little understanding of the history of the political left. The idea of a TERF voting for Labour …..is impossible to fathom. But also the fact that that the experience of radical gender/race politics worming its way through the institutions …insidiously …HR departments, quangos, academic curricula, recruitment committees, ethics boards, LEAs/school boards….. oversight committees…the redefinition of words and concepts…. (in America with an ostensible ‘old fashioned’ social democrat /liberal at the helm)….the fact that in spite of all this, you blithely cheer the prospect of a big state and an extension of the quangocracy …..is simply breathtaking. You have learned nothing. You want all off that control and manipulation, all that subjugation of the individual….all that repression of the family and autonomous local communities, as long as it doesn’t infringe on your own particular lesbian understanding of sex-based rights.
Basically you and Julie Bindel are like those communists waiting to be shot in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon….and lamenting that the revolution got some of the details wrong.
Zero respect

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
16 days ago

To think this man is the political heir of Gladstone. The Midlothian Campaign this was not.
The tragedy is that the Lib Dems will this evening be congratulating themselves on their wonderful performance, paying no heed to the fact that they’ve left the nation just a little more stupid and a little more ignorant with their antics

Michael Hollick
Michael Hollick
16 days ago

Am I alone in sensing genuine anger bubbling below Prof. Stock’s wit? Brava, madam. This is stirring stuff. Perhaps there’s a silver lining to be found in more of such eloquent writing puncturing our new overlords.

j watson
j watson
16 days ago

Problem is Kathleen getting stuck on a zipwire or eating pigs testicles in a jungle seems to attract a certain interest when the rest of one’s prospectus is vacuous.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
16 days ago

The Lib Dem campaign is the sort of thing they have to come up with when the politicians don’t want to meet the public.

David McKee
David McKee
16 days ago

Ah, Kathleen Stock fell for it. As any conjuror knows, the secret of any trick is to distract the audience.

While Davey was touring the theme parks, LibDem activists were crisscrossing the country, flooding their target seats with campaigners.

It’s how the LibDems got 71 seats with 3.5m votes, whereas in 1997, they got 46 seats with over 5m votes. Add to that some surreptitious non-aggression pacts with Labour, and Bob’s your uncle. Easy!

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
15 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

Still waiting for anything from the LibDems, another party who parachuted a, candidate into a constituency they can’t find on the map and dont know anything about. Maybe the reason only a handful of people voted for them!

Josef Švejk
Josef Švejk
16 days ago

I fortunately missed this chaps shenanigans, being Australia based. It is so good to catch up on the Lib/Dems ( neither fish nor fowl ) in one very entertaining article.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
16 days ago

Australian Labor won with a dreadful leader by saying nothing, except “we have a plan” – while so obviously not having a plan. Just like Labour and just like the wettest man in politics, Ed Davey. They are now struggling. Grown-ups realised all of that, but we no longer have so many of those, but kidults. The loss of reality starts with fantasy: drama, computer games and, worst of all, killing with kindness.
News and entertainment media has led gullible and inexperienced people to believe that they can have it all, that they can have it all now, and they can have it all for less effort than their forebears. It’s also sloppily distorted the meaning of the word love, which today really means more like tolerance, and suggests we should be tolerant of violence and terrorism.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
15 days ago

Hitchens produced the best line of critique in your Unherd alternative hustings evening. Words to the effect that, ‘If you expect any serious discussion of foreign policy in these election campaigns today then you might as well go home now…’

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
15 days ago

What is Edstone? What huskies ? What happened at the Olympics? I must have been reading manifestos at the time!

Anne Torr
Anne Torr
14 days ago

I’m surprised to read this from a woman who describes Nigel Farage (and presumably all those voters/supporters of Reform) as ‘hard right’ as described in The Sunday Times today.
Perhaps Kathleen Stock needs some lessons in the differences between far right, hard right, right, left, hard left, extreme left and all simplistic definitions in between.