This article is by LSE MSc student Evie Ioannidi, and covers a recent talk by Deborah Mattinson (pictured right), Founding Director of BritainThinks, as part of Polis’ Media and Communication in Action series.

As party conference season draws to a close, it looks like Theresa May might be in need of a break. As the BBC’s political editor so presciently tweeted, analysis of her speech to the Conservative Party Conference has focused on the unintended symbolism of her coughing fits, the P45 prank and a failing sign. Yet, May herself said in her speech that “people judge leaders by how they react in adversity.” Is that true? Deborah Mattinson, founder of BritainThinks, has unique insight into public opinion on leadership which she shared in her talk for Polis.

Polling the Public

BritainThinks is an insight and strategy consultancy. They aim to help their clients “build better relationships” with their audience, by providing them with research into their opinions and desires. Using a vast range of research techniques to suit organisations from corporate multinationals to the public sector, BritainThinks offers insight, strategy, communication and engagement based on the findings of their studies.

Mattinson shared the results of one such study with Polis. In partnership with the Observer, the public were asked “What do people look for in a leader?” BritainThinks took a mainly quantitative approach in surveying two focus groups comprised of swing voters, one in November 2015 and one in August 2017. Hence, the study was able to examine a shift in the public’s priorities. “Being a great communicator,” “being decisive” and “having integrity” were consistently the top three for both groups.

When David Cameron was still Prime Minister, “being a great communicator” topped that list. This year it’s “integrity,” which is defined as being “honest,” “trustworthy” and having “good intentions.” Considering that since 2015 the term Post-truth has been born, the reversal is unsurprising.

Source: BritainThinks

What makes a leader?

Appearance matters. Mattinson pointed out that “we want our leaders to be authentic, but we want them to authentically look the part.” The stature of Winston Churchill and the style of Richard Branson were contrasted with Donald Trump’s hair. While the bar is undoubtedly set higher for women, the evidence shows that looking like a leader is a universal prerequisite.

It’s fair to say that Boris’ scruffy charm has worked in his favour, where women would be unlikely to benefit from it. However, the tide may be turning for Boris as well, as he ranked third from last in effectiveness.

BritainThinks put forward the names of influential figures for the focus group to rate in terms of how effect they were as leaders. The graph is insightful, with individuals from Alan Sugar to the Queen sandwiched between Churchill as the runaway winner and Trump on a rating of 2.95/10. Historical, apolitical and foreign political leaders tend to do better than domestic, who are grouped together towards the lower end of the scale.

Source: BritainThinks

Boris may come close to last in the table, but it’s notable that he stubbornly remains in the foreground, considering he isn’t currently a “leader” – Sadiq Khan does not feature, nor does fellow pro-Brexit campaigner Michael Gove. No UKIP leader since Nigel Farage comes up either. In terms of public attitudes towards leadership, that intrusion alone is insightful into how long-lasting the trait of ‘leadership’ is.

Corbyn and May

Despite being disliked, political leadership is very important to the public. When asked about the leaders of the two main parties in the UK, respondents were largely disparaging of both. If you were wondering what kind of car the public think they are, Theresa May was compared to the three-wheeler Robin Reliant because it’s surprising “it doesn’t tip over – it keeps going against the odds.” Is that better or worse than Corbyn’s Prius-ification? – “Kind of ugly-looking […] but they do good for the world” Luckily for both, the importance of “being charismatic” has dropped 6% since 2015, considering neither is viewed as possessing that quality. Furthermore, though May outperforms Corbyn in more policy areas, they are both viewed as equally incapable of uniting their own parties.

Ultimately, the research reveals that, while when pushed most think May makes a better PM than Corbyn would, both May and Corbyn are only in post because of the “absence of convincing alternatives.” Mattinson pointed out that the public at the moment are less “anti-leadership,” more “anti-politics.” So perhaps it will take more than a leadership contest to see those convincing alternatives.


This article by LSE MSc student Evie Ioannidi.

For more information about the Polis Media and Communications in Action talks, please visit our website.