16 November 2019

The ‘relatability’ fallacy


“Why are you relatable, to families up and down the country? How can they relate to you and your family?”

Thus began a rather awkward exchange between presenter Naga Munchetty and Boris Johnson on Friday morning’s BBC Breakfast show. Though the usual keyboard warriors were out in force to lampoon the PM for a somewhat waffly, dismissive response, my sympathies were firmly with Johnson.

The demand for ‘relatability’ is one of those mainstays of political coverage that has always struck me as particularly vacuous, if not actively counter-productive. We ask politicians to work flat-out solving an enormous range of often intractable, hotly-contested problems, and still lambast them for being ‘out of touch’. Be extraordinary, we demand, but let us excoriate you for your lack of ordinariness at the same time.

If you think about it, the very question ‘how are you relatable?’ presupposes its own answer. Imagine if you asked an actual man on the street the same thing, you would be looked at with wide-eyed confusion, and rightly so. The sub-text of asking a politician is, of course, that their lives are nothing like those of the people they serve.

Trying to pretend otherwise is always tricky. Witness David Cameron forgetting which football club he supposedly supported, for one fine example. Indeed, sometimes leaders have been hauled over the coals for the mere suggestion that they are trying to be something they aren’t. Remember when Tony Blair talked about his days as a lad watching Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle, or Gordon Brown saying he was an Arctic Monkeys fan?

Those are both trick questions, actually – neither of them actually made either claim, but both still entered popular belief, probably because they seemed like the kind of thing a scion of New Labour might say.

Johnson himself risked the same opprobrium with this week’s Tory election broadcast, in which he answers a series of questions about his domestic life, interspersed with key campaign messages. Here, at least, there was probably something a bit more subtle going on – a deliberately naff interview designed to be ‘hate shared’ by supporters and opponents alike. Judging by the millions of views it’s already racked up, it’s a tactic that has paid off.

But does a politician being just like voters actually matter to the public, or is it just a hobby horse of journalists trying to land a ‘gotcha’ moment by proving that a posh politician doesn’t know the price of a pint of milk?

The answer is probably, a bit, but nowhere near as much as some might like to think. Remember, after all, that the British public’s favourite Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was literally born in a palace. By contrast, John Major may have been a working class boy from Brixton done good, but it didn’t stop him getting walloped by a public schoolboy Oxbridge graduate in 1997.

Likewise, how many American voters would say they relate to the trials and tribulations of a billionaire Manhattan property tycoon and reality TV star? Like him or loathe him, Donald Trump shows that sticking to your guns is more important than claiming to walk in the voters’ shoes.

Ultimately it’s not ‘relatability’ that matters, so much as likeability. On that score, Johnson can rest easy – particularly when he remembers who his principle opponent is.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX