Is Lembit right?

by Stephen Tall on February 4, 2008

Lembit Opik has been making the headlines again today, this time for his defence of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozys headline-grabbing wedding to former model Carla Bruni.

Most Lib Dems are, I guess, fairly accustomed to greeting Lembit’s pronouncements on media intrusion into celebrities’ lives with a slightly embarrassed shrug. As liberals, we have no problem with folk living their own lives in their own way; but Lembit’s unabashed upfrontness (such as last year’s Hello photoshoot with his current beau, Cheeky Girl singer Gabriela Irimia) can distract from his and the party’s more serious message.

That’s not much of an issue for President Sarkozy – he’s pretty much guaranteed blanket media coverage for anything he says or does. It’s more of an issue for a spokesman for the UK’s third party, who is probably only known to the public for his forays into minor-celebdom.

But Lembit went further than the usual ‘my private life is just that’ liberal response in his interview on the BBC Today Programme this morning, suggesting that celebrity couplings can rekindle the public’s interest in politics:

On the whole the media can be as critical as they want of these situations. The public tend to be more generous. They basically say we want people who connect, we want colourful people. Just because a politician has an attractive partner, that doesn’t make them worse at politics. Maybe it actually makes them better and more inspirational in terms of the general public.”

The purist liberal in me is instinctively uncomfortable with such remarks: the blurring of the personal and professional in political life is, I think, demeaning for the individuals concerned – everyone needs a private place where they can hide from the public gaze; and unhealthy for the wider public – who become distracted from the issues which will directly affect their lives. But as Ming Campbell discovered, when he got fed up with answering questions about his socks and resigned as party leader, there is an insatiable appetite for personal trivia. If you want to get on in politics, you just have to accept it, and deal with it.

But is Lembit right? Does public curiosity about the private lives of public figures help engage the electorate with politics? Or does it simply allow the public to feel they’re taking an interest in politics while paying no attention whatsoever?

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In answer to your questions Stephen……..I don’t know! I listened this morning and wasn’t convinced that having an attractive partner makes you better at politics…….no hope for those with unattractive partners or us singles then! So, do people take more of an interest in politics if politicians are colourful? I am actually a big fan of Lembit, I do think he has a gift at connecting which is first base for any of us, but I worry about endorsing a superficial notion of politics. So, yes, Lembit may get people to remember the Lib Dem brand, but will he also get them to remember what the Lib Dem brand is for? That is the challenge for him and for us.

by Linda Jack on February 4, 2008 at 10:24 pm. Reply #

“Does public curiosity about the private lives of public figures help engage the electorate with politics? Or does it simply allow the public to feel they’re taking an interest in politics while paying no attention whatsoever?”

The second one.

by Jennie on February 4, 2008 at 10:43 pm. Reply #

Er, Stephen… I do think the aforementioned Gabriela of the Cheeky Girls is a “belle”, not a “beau”. I know Lembit’s rampant heterosexuality may not conform to Lib Dem stereotype, but when it comes to Cheeky Girls fair’s fair. Don’t visit a sex change on the poor girl, please.

by Robin Young on February 5, 2008 at 1:10 am. Reply #

I fear that Lembit is something of a laughing stock and may struggle to keep his seat at the next general election.
I do not know what world he is living in if he thinks politicians ought to make the same lurid stories in the gossip columns as the celebrities do.
These same people are meant to make decisions on matters such as going to war, improving education, tackling global warming.
I would suggest that Lembit take note of how he performed when he stood for president of the Liberal Democrats. It wasn’t that no one knew who he was, in fact it may well have been because the party had become rather too familier with him over the years…

by Geoffrey Payne on February 5, 2008 at 7:30 am. Reply #

If Lembit means that most people are turned off by conventional politics then he is absolutely right. However the way to get round this is surely not to have a novelty partner but to engage with those disaffected with the political process.

It is not as though falling turnouts mean that people don’t care about schools, hospitals, etc. The recent furore where I live over allocation of primary school places indicates otherwise. But engagement surely means more than MPs who are the product of think tanks and wonk clubs, and a perception that a 40 yr old man in a suit is ‘cool’ that can only exist at Westminster.

by LiberalHammer on February 5, 2008 at 9:25 am. Reply #

What a stuffy, boring lot you all are, above! Lembit increased his local majority by 2.3% at the last election, taking votes from both main parties.
Its not as if he doesn’t do serious politics as well.

I’ll happily bet Geoffrey Payne a pint that Lembit retains his seat!

by Terry Gilbert on February 5, 2008 at 10:43 am. Reply #

‘Maybe it actually makes them better and more inspirational in terms of the general public.’

No it doesn’t. A middle aged man going out with a media tart who is significantly younger makes him look like he is having a mid-life crisis.

by ABC on February 5, 2008 at 11:02 am. Reply #

In the context of Sarkozy and Bruni, Lembit admitted he was ill-informed about French standards. The French media has traditionally been more deferential to its public figures, and the French population less celebrity and trivia inclined than its British counterpart (less so, I’m not claiming it’s unknown). For a major public figure, particularly the President to be cavorting in the manner of Sarkozy has, at best, been less than dignified. There have been interesting articles written on his saturation style, flooding the press with private information in order to distract from, and reduce space available for policy issues that aren’t going as well as he would like. This isn’t something that should be applauded – and according to my family in Nice, the French people don’t.

In a domestic context, just because there is an interest in trivia does not mean it should be sated. On all manner of issues, the correct answer to personal questions is ‘That’s none of your business’. When the paparazzi do decide to follow (this is taking on faith his claim never to have once led them on), the correct response is to put up with, or seek to reduce them, not to satisfy their every whim.

I’m sure that Lembit means well, he is a sound MP when serious and an engaging speaker when not, I have little doubt he will be comfortably re-elected, but I am always less than comfortable when his frequent appearances in the press are more about minor celebrities and less about policy and substance. With the press paying attention to him, he has a real opportunity to get a message out, and telling the House that ‘the other sister is still available’ does nothing to further that end.

by Greg Lowis on February 5, 2008 at 11:55 am. Reply #

Leave the poor lad alone – he’s simply following in a fine Liberal, Montgomery tradition.

As Lord Bonkers reminds me, wasn’t Emlyn Hooson photographed in the “Montgomery & Llanidloes Messenger” alongside the 1962 Montgomeryshire Dairy Queen? And you can’t get more celeb than that !!!

by crewegwyn on February 6, 2008 at 12:08 pm. Reply #

“A middle aged man going out with a media tart who is significantly younger makes him look like he is having a mid-life crisis.”

John McCain’s wife is 18 years younger than him and it doesn’t seem to be harming his campaign.

by Hywel Morgan on February 6, 2008 at 12:29 pm. Reply #

Hywel Morgan Said: “A middle aged man going out with a media tart who is significantly younger makes him look like he is having a mid-life crisis.”

I wouldn’t say it’s a mid life crisis, far from it. The’ve been going strong for almost 18 months.

by Gareth on February 6, 2008 at 4:49 pm. Reply #

Conventional MP’s are ten a penny. He’s engaging and contects well. He’s also intelligent enough to know what he is doing. he’d have runa credible ledaership campaign by now if he’d wanted to. We should respect his choices.

by David Morton on February 6, 2008 at 5:08 pm. Reply #

The day that Lembit’s private life becomes so familiar that he starts breeding contempt instead of amusement will be the day that he has stopped selling liberalism because he has sold his soul.

by Oranjepan on February 6, 2008 at 8:26 pm. Reply #

I liked the way that Lembit suggested that for high-profile politicians having a good love life helped when dealing with the pressures of the job.

Or something like that.

by Telephony Twat on February 6, 2008 at 10:07 pm. Reply #

Lets not slag off Lembit too much some of you.. he’s successfully diverted attention from the rather more seedy and depressing scandals which I am sure our opponents had permanently wanted to associate us with.

But he does need to make sure he does not veer off too much…

by sid on February 7, 2008 at 3:42 am. Reply #

If I have a criticism of Lembit it is that he doesn’t always get the balance right between serious politics and being a celebrity. Which is why I am glad he is at last being given proper shadow cabinet roles that will give him the chance to prove what he can do.

I admit to rolling my eyes and wondering what on earth Lembit was doing when I found out he was going out with a Cheeky Girl. But we shouldn’t judge her purely by what we see in the papers. My experience is that she is actually pretty bright and is far more interested in engaging with the party and chatting to members than many MP’s partners.

As I said, Lembit needs to show his serious side more. But any MP who is recognised by normally apathetic students and has them coming up to him in the pub wanting to chat to him (and admittedly to his girlfriend too) is an asset.

by Anders on February 7, 2008 at 11:34 am. Reply #

My big concern about Lembit is quite well summed up by this thread. Lembit is our housing spokesman, not our Europe shadow minister. So why are we discussing his views on Nicolas Sarkozy rather than his response to Caroline Flints proposed housing reforms? Has he even put out a press release (don’t bother checking, the answer is no).

Lembit’s personal life might not be stopping him from doing his job, but something is.

by James Graham on February 7, 2008 at 12:48 pm. Reply #

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