Thursday, 6 October 2011

Politicians these days, they all look the same

Politicians these days all look the same. They all sound the same, they all say the same things, basically it's impossible to tell them apart.

Such a statement would elicit many a knowing shrug from today's cynical electorate. Especially after three depressing weeks of party conferences. But is that what people really think? Possibly not. An interesting new piece of research from UCL and Queen Mary suggests that many people do believe it's possible to tell Labour and Conservative MPs apart just by looking at them. A typical "Labour" face, an identikit image produced by averaging out the responses of volunteers invited to shift through a pile of 90 (all male) MPs' photographs, was "rounder and softer" than the imagined Tory visage. The "Tories" were the ones with longer noses and darker eyes. When tested on a second sample of volunteers, most correctly identified the intended political stereotype.

I suppose it came down to an imagined political class divide. The "Tories" were the ones who looked vaguely like villainous toffs. Despite David Cameron's best efforts, the image of the Conservatives as the nasty party - and conversely of Labour as the party of warm-hearted men and women of the people - persists.

But it turns out these assumptions were wrong. While the first group of volunteers had a good idea of what they thought Conservative and Labour MPs looked like, they were not in fact able to identify political affiliation from looks alone. Some Labour MPs looked like Tories, and vice versa. This contrasted with a similar piece of research in the United States, in which volunteers were able correctly to distinguish Democrats from Republicans.

Most interestingly, we're told that the 19 volunteers involved in the initial sifting were "predominantly Labour supporters". They must have been upset to discover - if they were in fact told - just how many of today's Labour MPs look like Tories.