Will geeks inherit the earth?

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
Labour's Diane Abbott has called her rivals "geeks in suits"

They are emerging into the sunlight.

After years spent in the wonkish pursuit of policy perfection, geeks are beginning to dominate politics.

At least that is how it seems.

More and more, our would-be leaders are being drawn from the ranks of special advisers and analysts.

Their detractors say they are taking the colour and variety from public life; their supporters suggest they show a political profession becoming exactly that: a profession, full of relevant expertise.

No fewer than four former policy advisers - David and Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham - are among the contenders to become the next Labour leader.

The other candidate, left-winger Diane Abbott - herself a former Home Office employee - has described her rivals as "geeks in suits". It was not intended as a compliment.

But can the "geeks" make a success of things in a - paradoxically - increasingly image-conscious political world?

'Don't try to be normal'

Back in the 1990s, Tory leader William Hague was ridiculed for having had an unhealthy level of interest in politics.

Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2008, seven years after he resigned from the job, he said: "People want normal politicians and David Miliband is more geeky, more like me.

"David Cameron could wear a baseball cap, whereas Miliband would find it harder to appear normal. I must have a word with him and give him some advice - don't try to be normal when you aren't.

"As I never want to be leader of my party again, I don't have to try to be normal any more."

Mr Hague, now foreign secretary, is liberated to spend his days hammering out the minutiae of diplomatic policy.

The Milibands, Mr Balls and Mr Burnham do want to be party leader, though.

This is the big time, where questions of personality are asked by the media and the public.

Contrary to Mr Hague's words, the Labour contenders have been at pains, during the already-long campaign, to stress their normality.

The Oxbridge-educated fivesome frequently name-check their constituencies - a link to the "real world beyond Westminster" - and love of football, family life and rock music.

'No, not nerds'

This is judged to play well with Labour members and, presumably, the wider electorate.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spokesman, seems to think this wise too. He was said to have had a nickname for David Miliband when he was head of the Downing Street policy unit. It was "Brains", an unflattering reference to the diffident genius inventor in the 1960s puppet show Thunderbirds.

Mr Balls, a former adviser to Gordon Brown, was credited with getting the then chancellor to use the phrase "post-endogenous growth theory" in a speech on the economy.

The leadership candidates definitely do not want to look like geeks. But what is a geek, anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this term, usually used as an insult, as "any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit".

Image caption,
Reagan played it easy. Did Carter try and fail to be the world's uber-geek?

Cristiano Betta, a London-based computer programmer, has organised several "geek dinners", where like-minded obsessives get together to discuss their shared passions.

He refutes the negative dictionary definition: "It's the kind of traditional meaning, what should really be called a 'nerd' these days. The nerd is the kind of geek who has no social skills. A lot of geeks, on the other hand, go to a high number of social events.

"The modern-day geek usually means people into technology. But it also means someone who's more than passionate about something. They seem to know everything about something.

"It might be that they love all the new gadgets. Or it might be that they are into film, fashion, or policy and politics.

"They know all about a very niche topic and they are incredibly devoted to it. That's what geek means."

Politics, though, is a very big subject. Even the cleverest cannot be geeky about "everything".

'Men in suits'

In the US, Minda Zetlin has co-authored a study called The Geek Gap, outlining the losses made by business leaders as a result of the communication difficulties between them and their salaried experts.

She said: "People who run for public office wouldn't tend to be geeks. The main focus for the geeks is problem-solving. They are very dedicated people, the sort who would work at their desks until 2am because they want to find an answer - a bit like solving a crossword but much more than that."

Image caption,
Today's politicians are constantly compelled to show their fun side

Ms Zetlin divides those in the business world into two broad groups - the problem-loving geeks and the "suits". The suits are those who want to lead the firm, the commercial equivalent of high office-seeking politicians.

Ms Zetlin said: "Their main role in their jobs is influencing others. I would expect that most politicians tend to be more like suits than geeks.

"If someone has the desire to enter public office, then they need people-influencing skills."

So, is it possible to wield enormous power while still acting in a geekish way?

Ms Zetlin said: "Running a large company or a large country is such a complex task that you are unable to control every action. Someone in that position needs to understand people and delegate."

She argues that two recent US presidents exemplify the suit/geek divide.

Ronald Reagan was known for his easygoing, delegating style, whereas predecessor Jimmy Carter tried too hard to become involved in more detailed policy development, to his own detriment, she argues.

So, how high can a geek go in politics? Ms Zetlin claims business provides the ultimate role model in the world's richest man, Microsoft founder Bill Gates.


Ms Zetlin said: "He's a very good example of what someone can do. He's done what it seems your Labour Party leaders are seeking to do.

"Bill Gates certainly started out as a geek and became someone who is very powerful as a leader and a people-influencer. He learned and he's gotten better at that leadership side."

She added: "Suits need geeks as much as geeks need suits. One of the reasons we have got this situation in politics is that smart suits surround themselves with geeks, like policy advisers, in order to understand the policies on which they have to make decisions."

So, the geeks, with the aid of powerful party machines, are leaving their think-tanks and blue-skies thinking zones, putting on their suits and appealing for our votes.

Indeed, the term is becoming less pejorative, more a badge of honour among some.

The original US meaning of "geek" was a performer at a carnival or circus whose show consisted of, according to the dictionary, "bizarre or grotesque acts, such as biting the head off a live animal".

Now, that would be quite an election gimmick.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.