Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Greasy Pole: Keeping Their Hair On (1999)

The Greasy Pole column from the July 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Neil Kinnock fought a lot of losing battles along the way to the relative, but lucrative, obscurity of an EC commissioner but few of them were so hopeless as the struggle to discipline his hair. When he first came into prominence as Labour’s spokesman on education Kinnock had a reputation as a fiery left-winger, with ready verbal access to those facile, fatuous theories about how easy it was for left-wing policies to remedy all of capitalism’s ailments. He was a supporter of CND whose position as a Member of Parliament gave credence to the campaigns aimed at persuading the British ruling class to do something as unlikely as give up their capacity to wage nuclear war. All this, it was hoped, would add up to an irresistible appeal to young people making their way to the polling stations to choose between one capitalist party and another.

This was all very well, except for the hair. Kinnock had a tendency toward baldness, which was not consistent with an appeal to youth so he had to carefully train what was left of his hair across his head, to hide the thinning area on his crown. But alas for such vanity; in spite of all that care and attention the voters, young and old, could not be persuaded to elect a Labour government and as a result, as Kinnock became leader of his party, he saw a desperate need to change as much of his image as he could. Out went the left-wing stuff, to be replaced by bitter, raging attacks on Militant, Derek Hatton and the like. Out went the easy talk about simple solutions to capitalism’s problems; instead we had stern lectures on the absolute necessity to buckle down into obedient exploitability. Out went the CND marches, the banners and the chants; in their place Kinnock was wedded to the policy of the British ruling class being up there with the rest of the nuclear powers, with an arsenal capable of wiping out much of the world.

And suddenly, one day without warning, out went the hair as well. Kinnock did not say: “Look here, I’m fed up with all this combing and arranging and spending a fortune on Brylcreem. From now on you will see the real me.” He simply appeared in public with a bald, shiny head where once his ginger tresses had been so painstakingly fashioned and left his public to draw their own conclusions. One conclusion was that this was the work of some image consultant, who had persuaded Kinnock to give up the unequal struggle in the hope that the voters would be more likely to trust a leader who looked like a mature family doctor rather than one who seemed to be clinging to an unfulfilled adolescence. In any case this drastic re-fashioning was no more successful than all the other changes as Kinnock continued to notch up lost elections until he bowed to the inevitable and resigned.

This disreputable episode was forgotten until the advent of William Hague, who has suffered more than most from a negative image. No sooner had he been chosen as Tory leader than the hacks were queueing up to pour scorn on his infantile appearance. At first Hague seemed to have decided that there was some advantage in having a youthful appearance and launched himself into a series of publicity stunts which in the event only made matters worse for him. There was the conference, soon after their defeat in May 1997, of Tory leaders trying to look like people who were repenting their past arrogance and complacency. Hague had them posing for the cameras wearing chunky sweaters instead of the usual suits—which made them appear acutely uncomfortable and no less gruesome than usual. There was the time Hague made a visit to the Notting Hill Carnival—apparently spontaneous if it were not for the press cameras waiting for him—when he tried to amass some street cred by eating ethnic food from a roadside stall. Then there was the baseball cap.

Party Colours
Hague was trying to do to the Tories what Kinnock and Blair had done for the Labour Party—change the way the party was regarded by the voters. One of the early changes in the Labour Party on the way to becoming New Labour was to get rid of the red flag and replace it with the red rose. Hague decided to do something similar at the Tory conference, abandoning the usual blue backdrop and symbolic torch in favour of one made up of multi-coloured different shapes. This upset many Tories. They were probably unaware that blue was not, in fact, that much of a tradition for the Conservatives. It had been established as their colour as recently as 1961, when Harold Macmillan was their leader, replacing a variety of colours which, for example in Macmillan’s constituency, were orange and purple.

But as was the case with Labour’s red rose, these changes did not have the desired effect and it soon became obvious that desperate measures were called for so Hague, who had suffered from the same sparseness of hair as Kinnock, put the matter in the hands of his barber. He emerged from this with a similarly bare head, which did not make him look like a kindly, mature bank manager but a prematurely bald schoolboy. Soon afterwards he set about proving how strong and decisive he is by sacking several prominent members of his opposition team, including Michael Howard, Norman Fowler and Peter Lilley.

Even Peter Lilley hastened to put his head on the block, which was especially nauseating as he had apparently been sacked over a speech he made when he questioned the emphasis the previous Tory government had put on market operation and the policy to ” . . . convert public services into profit-making businesses”. This speech angered a lot of Tories but a few days later Hague came out in support of Lilley:

“It is a great mistake to think that all Conservatives have to offer is solutions based on free markets. If we think that, we would have little to say about public services where there are limits to the role of the market.”

This may have encouraged Lilley to think that his place in the shadow cabinet and as deputy party leader was safe so that in his turn he may have protested at the decision to sack him. But this did not happen.

Observing such typical back-stabbing and betrayals, Neil Kinnock has changed yet again. Now he says that all the effort he put into a new image for his party was a waste of time. Whatever the party did, the voters did not want him in Number Ten:
“One of the reasons [voters] eventually put their cross by the Conservative candidate was this innate feeling among a relatively small number of people that they couldn’t see me as prime minister. It’s just there in the biochemistry as it were.”
Well Kinnock is no more an authority on biochemistry than he is on how to win elections so when he offers Hague some advice on this latter issue the Tory leader would do well to proceed with caution. “When I saw William Hague put that baseball cap on . . .,” said Kinnock, “I recoiled for his sake . . . The best advice is collar and tie, shiny shoes, a degree of formality . . .”

Perhaps this kind of fatuous rubbish impresses enough people to have them give weighty consideration over which party they want to run British capitalism. They might spend a bit more time to reflect on how meaningless all this is and that this cynical posturing is designed to ensure that a social system endures which is so damaging to its people that it cannot be justified in any free and open assessment.

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