Why the political class *hearts* Joey Essex

Party leaders have mistaken a reality-TV star for the electorate.

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

Twenty-three-year-old Joey Essex, a one-time actor on scripted-reality show The Only Way Is Essex, is working on a new series, Educating Joey Essex: General Election, What Are You Saying?!, in which he interviews the main party leaders. It’s meant to encourage young people to vote. So far this has involved a boat ride with UKIP’s Nigel Farage and taking a clutch of selfies with Labour’s Ed Miliband and the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg. Over the weekend, however, it was announced that UK prime minister and Tory leader David Cameron has declined an invitation to be the fourth leader quizzed by the star. Essex said he was ‘gutted’, but added, ‘I can’t say he’s not reem’. Fortunately for Cameron, ‘reem’ means nice.

Not everyone thinks Essex is reem, though. Following his brief but excruciating interview with Clegg at the beginning of this month, in which Clegg giggled over Essex mistakenly asking him about the Liberal Democats, a Telegraph columnist bemoaned the ‘shameful dumbing-down of politics’. In a tirade against the laziness of yoofs, she criticised Essex for failing to do any preparation before questioning Clegg. She claimed there was a certain way to go about being political, and Essex didn’t have a hope in hell of getting it right. Almost immediately, several commentators accused Essex’s detractors of snobbery. Writing in defence of the tanned star, ninetysomething NHS activist Harry Leslie Smith praised Essex because he ‘displays a similar desire to the one that I had in 1945 to learn more about our political process’.

Ignoring the obvious differences between British politics 70 years ago and what passes for politics today, the worrying thing is that both sides of this rather weird battle over Essex buy into the ‘stupid’ act that he deploys. In fact, whether they see him positively or not, the political and media classes all seem to think he’s real. The absurdity of holding up a permanently tanned, preened-and-pumped Essex reality TV star as representative of ‘real voters’ is lost on them.

Politicians’ and pundits’ obsession with Essex reveals just how patronisingly they view vast swathes of the electorate. They are far more comfortable with the view that certain people just won’t get politics unless it’s fed to them in bite-sized dumbed-down form. The idea that it is mainly because politicians are so uninspiring that no one is bothering to watch the Westminster show doesn’t cross their minds. As far as they’re concerned, political apathy is our problem, not theirs.

Desperate to avoid another Rochester and Strood embarrassment, when a Labour shadow minister mocked an England flag-flying white-van man, Miliband made an effort to take Essex very seriously as a young voter. As did Farage and Clegg. Perhaps Cameron isn’t as confident posing for a selfie as ‘Nick Leg’. The brief indulgence by the party leaders of the Essex show (because there is no doubt it’s a performance) confirms that they wouldn’t know a normal person if one gave them a slap with a bacon sandwich.

Even the commentariat are indulging the Essex show in an attempt to get down with the people. Commentator-cum-activist Owen Jones, who is never far from a photo opportunity, posed for a selfie with Essex, and described him as a ‘genuinely lovely bloke’. It’s as if everyone who takes a picture of Essex is desperately resisting the urge to pinch him to see if he’s actually one of those real people.

What on earth is a real person? This obsession with authenticity in the run-up to the election reveals the extent to which politicians are out of touch with those they claim to represent. Essex’s interviews are meant to encourage young people to get out and vote. Just like his career in TOWIE, Essex’s efforts to inspire voters probably won’t be too successful. Watching the election play out where it mainly resides – on the telly – is like sitting in front of a reality TV show. Characters like Essex play the dumb lovable average joe, the likes of Russell Brand act the edgy, shouty, let’s-start-a-revolution-in-a-bathrobe-on-YouTube-reformed delinquent, and the political leaders showcase themselves as the apologetic, self-conscious bad guys. And it’s all pretend.

We need less politics-as-reality-TV, and more big ideas. We need a proper discussion about what our society ought to stand for today. Could it be this lack of debate that explains why most people, and not only the young, don’t feel the burning need to visit the polling booths? What the political class and its critics don’t seem to understand is that publicity stunts are not the same as politics, and ‘real people’ aren’t at all that bothered about following their performance.

Ella Whelan is staff writer at spiked. Follow her on Twitter: @Russtler91

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Politics UK