The practice of politics always has challenges. Such challenges are magnified when confronted with the optics: the perception of the people. Not all political Leaders seem to realise this….
While more UK small businesses are going bust than any year since the financial crisis of 2009, with mortgage interest doomed to remain high until the next election, Rishi Sunak chose to prioritise removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses. In practice that may have been sensible, as the cap simply meant base salaries increased instead, but the optics are awful. It cements the image of the PM as Rich Rishi looking after his friends rather than helping working people grapple with the cost-of-living. Prioritising bankers is bonkers.
The war in the Middle East has such challenges writ large. Western leaders support Israel – but are increasingly appalled about the impact on Gaza infrastructure as well on Palestinian civilian lives. The optics are changing fast. Within Israel, Jewish people are turning anti-Netanyahu as he/his security agency never anticipated the attack. In many countries Muslims and non-Muslims are now protesting about Palestinian rights, correctly observing that the seeds of the current war were planted when Israel broke agreements made in 1948 and began forcibly occupying Palestinian territory.
Within the UK, one ministerial aide who called for a ceasefire has had the party whip withdrawn because this is not Government policy: PM Sunak, increasingly seen as a weak Leader, wished to show decisiveness without discussion. It is not Labour policy either, nor EU or US policy, because the timing is not yet right. The reality is that calling for a ceasefire now is just gesture politics: it would let Hamas regroup while holding on to the hostages. But the clamour for it, particularly from Labour politicians, has become louder: 15 Labour MPs, 2 Metro Mayors and 250 Councillors have made the same appeal to their Leader. A shadow Minister has just resigned and others may follow.
Sir Keir Starmer as Leader of the Opposition has listened but not given way. Instead he met their concerns directly in a major speech at Chatham House in London declaring the current priority must be humanitarian aid and hostage release. A ceasefire would prejudice both. Aware of the optics for some, he has tried to challenge them. Suddenly we saw a real Leader, and maybe even a Statesman. Nonetheless many colleagues have yet to be converted and more Labour Councillors have resigned. A ceasefire will surely come before long: the optics are irresistible.
More countries’ Leaders are reminding Israel that Palestinians have rights too. A UN Spokesman has even gone as far as saying: “We remain convinced that the Palestinian people are at grave risk of genocide.” Shakespeare as always had a pertinent couplet, this time from Measure for Measure:
O ‘tis excellent
to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
to use it like a giant.
Even if Israel succeeds in destroying Hamas – indeed, especially if Israel succeeds in destroying Hamas – Netenyahu may have won the battle but lost the war of public opinion in large parts of the world. He cannot defy the optics.
Meanwhile, credit for Sunak that he managed to hold the first international summit on Artificial Intelligence in the UK and ensure that most of the key players attended including the EU Commission President. However his declared aim for the UK to be “the geographical home of global AI safety regulation” is somewhat fanciful given the EU is well advanced down that road. Although it was a diplomatic coup internationally, back home the problem for the people is that it showed total lack of focus on their immediate concerns. They are less bothered about the threat of artificial intelligence than the absence of human intelligence within Government.
A new session of the UK Parliament has just begun, heralded by the King’s Speech outlining the Government’s priorities for the coming year: the people’s priorities of help for the NHS and Social Care plus recognition of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis received scant attention. Even Tory MPs agreed it was not the game-changer it needed to be. Sunak will not inspire a further term on this basis.
Meanwhile, in Spain, the Leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party Pedro Sánchez failed to secure an overall Parliamentary majority in the recent election and needs the support of two Catalan Independence parties to give him just enough seats overall. However the price of their support is amnesty for Catalan politicians who had sought independence from Spain. 70% of Spaniards disagree, and there have been many protests in the streets. The optics are clear, but so are the mathematics!
Politics is always a challenge, but the bigger challenge is to avoid defying the optics: so often optics determine the future agenda. Ageing Joe Biden is another Leader who should be concerned.