For most politicians Christmas normally provides a welcome break from official duties. They can enjoy a brief period away from their constituents to spend quality time with their families.
The downside is that your average politician also has to send a small mountain of Christmas cards to their supporters. In most cases these all have to be signed by hand. Nothing causes offence like a photocopied signature. A huge amount of time has to be set aside for signing cards, sometimes to people they barely remember.
Politicians send these cards to show that they care and are in touch with their followers. It’s also a way to help reshape their political brand for the year ahead. That’s why the biggest names often have bespoke cards. The image on the front is of vital importance in conveying a particular message.
The difference between the cards sent this year by prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t be more stark. Cameron’s is a picture of him and his wife Samantha outside the door of Downing Street on the morning after the election. Cameron is grasping the opportunity with both hands – in case anyone has forgotten, this was the year in which he won an election when everyone thought he was out for the count.
Corbyn’s, on the other hand, sends a clear message that the whole Christmas card ritual is a distraction from the serious business of politics. He has broken with tradition and opted to use an utterly impersonal and rather bland stock image of a bicycle on his first card as leader of the opposition. The card reeks of “this’ll do”. It’s difficult to imagine that more than a few minutes of thought went into its production.
This is unlikely to bother Corbyn’s more loyal followers but might fuel discontent among those who are unhappy with his leadership. It will also probably be used as another stick with which to beat him. You should never underestimate the impact of even the smallest slight in politics. For all their bluster, politicos are notoriously thin skinned.
British politicians often choose to pose with their families on their Christmas cards. It’s a perfect option for showing off their credentials as a wholesome, caring person. Cameron has often taken this approach but has left the kids out this year in favour of a more explicit political message.
Corbyn hasn’t even appeared himself, perhaps because of the media’s ongoing and unwelcome interest in his private life. Using his family’s image could potentially open him up to charges of hypocrisy from the right-wing press. Certainly in the British political environment, politicians are more wary of putting their private lives on display then their American counterparts.
Jokers in the pack
Other politicians attempt to use their cards to show off their personality and sense of humour (take Australian Labour MP Andrew Leigh for example).
Chancellor George Osborne attempted to show a sense of humour with a cartoon snowman version of himself, standing outside 11 Downing Street brandishing his famous red briefcase.
This is an important year for Osborne. He has spent the past few months reinforcing his image as the main contender to succeed Cameron but is often accused of lacking the likeability factor – and he really can’t afford that kind of reputation if he is serious about becoming the next prime minister.
Showing a sense of humour is certainly part of this strategy, hence the snowman. Sending out significant numbers of personalised Christmas cards might also be Osborne’s way of trying to strengthen relationships within the parliamentary party and the grassroots.
The home affairs select committee went one further, with a full on Star Wars themed “family” portrait. Chairman Keith Vaz starred as Obi-Wan Kenobi, with home secretary Theresa May as Princess Leia – although it’s not clear if she consented to this.
Vaz hasn’t necessarily had the best year in the press, and like Osborne, this might be part of a charm offensive (also capitalising on the release of the new Star Wars movie).
Neither though, can hold a torch to a US politician who has made a name for herself as a result of her Christmas cards. Many people who know nothing about the political life of senator Loretta Sanchez know of her and her cat Gretzky. For several years Sanchez sent out cards featuring the two of them atop a Christmas mantle, in bed and even on a shiny motorbike, riding into the new year. When Gretsky tragically died in 2010, the tradition came to an end. Sanchez can now more regularly be seen posing with her husband on her Christmas cards.
If nothing else, the stunt garnered her a lot of attention. Every December the media would wait with bated breath for the publication of her latest monstrosity.
The 2015 offerings from the British political elite seem rather tame in comparison, but it is Cameron who comes out on top of the pile. It may not offer even the slightest whiff of mistletoe but the message is clear – I’m the PM and I won the election for my party.
Corbyn’s bicycle in the snow – a shot from 2009 – says nothing. It simply reminds the press and public that, whatever else his strengths might be, media management and PR are not among them.