Friday, 12 February 2016

Funny but fair - how to generate political nicknames that work

As political attention spans get shorter, it becomes ever more important to be able to label a candidate or a cause with a nickname that resonates. Whether you are tagging your own side or your opponents, if you can find a reference that people will remember then you have made a major step forward.

The history of political nicknames is a pretty long one. They divide into four basic categories:
  • those which are basically affectionate endorsements of a character;
  • those which are dreamt up by newspapers
  • those created as put downs by people supposedly on your own side, and
  • those designed to label your opponents in a negative fashion.

So Charles Kennedy, before he became Leader of the Liberal Democrats, was Chat Show Charlie - thanks to his frequent appearances on TV in panel games. To those who believed politicians should be serious at every turn, the nickname was an insult. But Kennedy kept up the appearances both because he was comfortable in such situations and was making a connection with those who would never dream of watching Question Time. See also Dennis Skinner, the Beast of Bolsover.

UK newspapers, in particular the tabloids, are responsible for many of the best nicknames. Paddy Pantsdown stayed with the former Leader of the Liberal Democrats long after people had forgotten the details of his affair with a former staff member. John Prescott will always be known as Two Jags for his government car use. And referring to Norman Tebbit as the Chingford Skinhead accurately reflected his willingness to trade blows (albeit metaphorical) and I suspect was a nickname he didn’t particularly mind.

Labour seems to be a fertile breeding ground for epithets designed to denigrate one of your own. The party has given us Brains (David Miliband), St Ella (Stella Creasy), and the Streatham Obama (Chuka Umunna). None are intended to be particularly complimentary.

Some politicians will be lucky enough to be given nicknames from more than one source. So Ed Miliband was Red Ed to the right wing press and (when a Special Advisor in Downing Street) the Emissary from the Planet F*ck according to Alastair Campbell.

When it comes to generating a nickname for your opponents, it can be a tricky business. There is the danger of being seen to be over the top or, most dangerous of all, unfunny. You might even find your nickname is taken on board by the recipient. So when Labour’s Harriet Harman (herself nicknamed Harperson by opponents deriding political correctness) labelled Danny Alexander the Ginger Rodent, not only did this deflect from the far more dangerous (because it was funny) Beaker epithet, but also gave Alexander the chance to take the name as his own, to the extent that he sponsored a guest beer in a House of Commons bar named ‘The Ginger Rodent’. The joke was on Harman.

In the United States, the attacks on Barack Obama claiming he was secretly a muslim were recognised by mainstream republicans to be alienating to most voters. But whilst they did not find favour with the GOP presidential campaign, Obama was referred to in all internal campaign briefings as BHO - for Barack Hussein Obama (his full name). If the republicans could not claim that their opponent was a muslim, they could at least continually remind people that he had a muslim sounding middle name.

The run up to the EU referendum in the UK is looking like fertile ground for nicknames. Home Secretary Theresa May is seeing the revival of her Theresa Maybe label as she vacillates between support for In and Out camps. And the attempt by the Leave camp to tag their opponents as Remainians could be seen as a clever move, linking the the notion of Romanian migrants to an In vote.

In UK by-elections, the labels get somewhat more personal. The Conservative candidate in the 2006 Bromley and Chislehurst by election, Bob Neill, came close to losing a 13,342 majority (holding on by just 633 votes) after a targeted campaign by the second place Liberal Democrats who named him Three Jobs Bob in respect of his roles as a barrister, member of the GLA and health authority boss, a targeting that Neill reflected on angrily in his count speech.

In 1991, the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Hemsworth by-election, Val Megson was labelled by the media as ‘the candidate who hasn’t paid her poll tax’. True enough. But at a time when many thousands of less well off voters in the seat were also struggling to pay the charge, it might not have been the worst nickname to have - particularly when it deflected attention from a number of other alleged financial difficulties the candidate was facing. Although never in danger of winning that contest, she nevertheless leapfrogged the Conservatives to take second place.

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