This month, the reality TV favourite of British audiences the isle over, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! returned to our screens. I’ve never been a fan of it but having spent many years living under the roof of parents who watch it obsessively, I’m familiar with its shtick. It’s an annual pastime for my mum to get a little too engrossed in the series ever year. The way some people treat Game of Thrones, working to decipher its political machinations and impeccably organised backstabbing, is how my mum watches I’m a Celeb. Call her old fashioned but she’s a sucker for watching vaguely famous people suffer in the Australian jungle as they’re forced to eat kangaroo dicks while two obnoxious Geordie presenters snigger in the background.
This year, things are a little more interesting for me, as one of the contestants in the jungle is politician and former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone I voted for in an election enter a competition to be voted upon by the public for the democratic duty of crawling through piles of bugs to earn food for footballers’ wives and unemployed TV hosts. Being a Labour member is already a treacherous life decision in many aspects without having to worry that your former party leader could be buried alive with a pit of snakes for the entertainment of the British public. I did wonder why she’d made the decision to go into the jungle, so soon after we’d elected a new leader and while she’s still a sitting member of Scottish Parliament, but then I remembered two words: Ed Balls.
The man who could have become the Chancellor of the Exchequer before Labour’s disastrous loss in 2015 (which included his own seat) took an oft-walked path into the hearts of the former electorate by becoming a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. It didn’t matter that he was the worst dancer on the planet; he still became more popular and beloved with Brits than he had done through decades of public service and economic savvy. Why throw yourself into the lions’ den of thankless sacrifice that is politics when you can stagger along to Gangnam Style and have everyone cheer you on for it?
It had worked previously for former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, who whitewashed away years of right-wing rhetoric and gaffes to become a public favourite through her own inability to dance. There was left-wing firebrand and ceaseless self-promoter George Galloway, who left his constituents high and dry to go into the Celebrity Big Brother house, where he infamously wore a leotard and pretended to be a cat. That worked out less well for him, and it wielded similarly dismal results for Tommy Sheridan, the man who many had once believed would revive socialism in Scotland. Penny Mordaunt, a Toru MP who is currently Secretary of State for International Development, still found time in her busy schedule to appear on the celebrity diving competition Splash! Plenty more have left the ranks of parliament for reality TV, and it’s hardly an exclusively British phenomenon. Tom DeLay tried to make everyone forget about his electoral fraud charges with a Dancing with the Stars stint, which went as well for him as it did with Rick Perry. It’s almost as expected a part of the politician’s handbook as door-to-door canvassing and wearing oversized rosettes. Everyone gets angry when they sign up for it, and yet they still end up cheering them on. My mum thought Ed Balls stayed on Strictly Come Dancing a couple of weeks too long, but she still approved him giving it a go in the first place.
For big names, the monetary compensation awarded for a few weeks of televised public humiliation can be dazzling. It’s not as if politics is a low-paying occupation but you can’t beat the quick cash injection that accompanies three weeks of jungle shenanigans (and hopefully even less if you’re voted off early enough and get to spend the rest of your time in a five-star Australian resort). Yet there’s obviously more to it than an increased bank account. If you wanted to profit from your post-MP life without eating crocodile testicles, why not just write a book or get into political commentary? It’s more dignified and stronger for your personal brand. You can do well from a book if the advance is good, but it’s something that requires you to be a public presence in the first place, like a former party leader or one of the head honchos of government. Nobody cares about the memoirs of a backbencher MP who truly loved their job and believed in the power of the people to get the job done. That’s why we have The West Wing. Besides, few people end up reading those books and they’ll all quickly be dumped in the bargain bin by Summer until the recycling bin calls. If you’re going to cash in, it may as well be on something people will actually pay attention to, even if it’s for the wrong reasons.
Then again, perhaps there are no wrong reasons in this game. Even if people laugh at you instead of with you, it’s still laughter and it’s more focus than hours of BBC Parliament coverage of select committees will ever get. Hang in long enough, withstand the hours of jeering and cheesy tabloid headlines, and soon you’ll have people commending you for being able to laugh at yourself. Yeah, you were a bruiser in parliament but isn’t it fun that you don’t take yourself too seriously and seem to be having so much fun doing what almost looks like dancing?
Politicians are easy to hate, and making yourself a loveable figure of state is a veritable shit-show waiting to happen. Think of every staid old dude in an expensive suit who used a meme in a political add or quoted a rap song in a campaign speech. Given how much we crave authenticity from our representatives, it’s a quality we’re incredibly apprehensive to level them with. We’re naturally cagey about the occupation, so of course we doubt David Cameron’s claims that he’s a big Radiohead fan. Even if he is, it doesn’t seem like he should be. We expect dignity and authority from politicians, even when we despise it. Reality TV is the balm to that, the id we’ve always wanted to reveal itself, and the ultimate PR boon: Make yourself relatable by becoming the proud fool. Knock yourself off your own pedestal and become bigger than ever.
There is, of course, the other side to this. When the leader of the United States is a literal reality TV show judge, something he seems to take more pride in than being President, how do you quantify the power of showbiz over substance? Why be a politician when you can just play one on telly? It’s a hell of a lot easier to get millions of voters to consume soundbites and catchphrases than electoral jargon. Our political ecosystem is already melding with the shock-tactics high-concept madness of reality TV, so why differentiate between the two? According to Annette Hill, ‘without a fixed and knowable centre, reality TV becomes what people want it to be.’ Perhaps what they want is politics for play.