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Why they’re always in the kitchen for political parties…

15 May

You may have had enough of James ‘two ovens’ Brokenshire by now, but bear with me a moment, as I look at why the kitchen is such a ubiquitous backdrop for political ambition.

The thing about kitchens is that they are everyday places – we all have to use one, to store provisions and to feed ourselves.  So, at a level, they are utilitarian and universal. This is why politicians might wish to be seen in them – to show that they too are ordinary people, to be in PR-speak, ‘relatable’.  What could be more normal than washing the dishes? Kitchens are places of domestic economy – where food is prepared and distributed, so that politicians in kitchens can give a nod towards good housekeeping and responsible budgeting, and have wholesome associations with healthy nutrition for families. 

So far, so appealing.  But now we get to the ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ bit, currently being ‘enjoyed’ by Messrs Brokenshire and Raab, both recently seen in interviews down home with their wives, in – where else? – the kitchen.  For as well as being sites of mundane labour, kitchens are powerful signifiers of social class and status.  Mr Brokenshire’s four ovens may seem like a simple preference for the kind of people who re-fit their kitchens when they move house or build extensions, but these types of choices look very different to people whose kitchens are more Royle Family than royal family. In the UK, the links been kitchens and social class are so well-understood that there are ‘Smug’ fridges in Aardman animations – the gadgets and brands in our kitchens are a perfect social shorthand.  It’s no coincidence that about a third of the 16 items recently deemed to make you middle-class in Britain, were things that are kitchen-related.  One of these, the barbeque, features prominently in Dominic Raab’s framed word cloud decoration, which probably has an advisor now banging their head on a zinc counter somewhere ….


As well as signalling social class, kitchens provide a gender minefield.  Male politicians like David Cameron (remember webcameron?) like to be seen there to enact not just ordinary bloke-ishness, but also modern fatherhood.  Cameron doled out kids’ breakfast or stacked the dishwasher while discussing his vision for the future.  For women, it’s a double-edged sword to be seen in the kitchen.  As the first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher used it both to soften her image, cooking for Dennis on the morning of the election, and to show her science credentials, in a BBC2 programme.  Nicola Sturgeon gave an interview in hers in 2015, confessing that she spent little time there – too busy being an effective leader to be in there much.  And she has a point, as the first cry of the sceptic watching women in powerful positions, is to suggest that they get ‘back to the kitchen’, where women belong in their domestic roles.  


Across the pond, kitchen skills have often caused controversy for first ladies: while many were happy to be depicted baking cookies for the nation, Hillary Clinton famously fell foul of public opinion by declaring that she had preferred her profession to homebaking.  Although Michelle Obama was happy to plant a vegetable garden and advocate healthy eating, she distanced herself from any great culinary expertise.  President Obama, meanwhile, was photographed at that temple of masculine cuisine: the barbeque.  In terms of kitchens themselves, American presidents arguably have it easier in terms of public perceptions, as the White House kitchen is famous as a backdrop in its own right, teeming with professional staff to cater for all occasions.  This fact, along with the privileges of gender, make skits like the Onion’s, showing Obama mocked-up in the White House kitchen attempting to cater for a Chinese delegation, work. More recently Trump pitched himself as the gold-plated everyman, laying on a McDonald’s ‘banquet’ when the White House kitchen was out of service.  No scratch cooking for this man’s man.


A final reason why politicians should tread warily in the kitchen is that they have become venues of studied informality.  As Amanda Craig wrote when David Cameron was caught up in the ‘kitchen suppers’ controversy, where the likes of Rebekah Brooks joined him for casual meals in the Cotswolds, the loss of dining rooms from domestic architecture means that kitchens are now intimate spaces where people can relax.  Many cook performatively in view of guests – the performance aspects appealing particularly to the modern hands-on man. And once the cooking is done, everyone dines together in the same warm space. This intimacy is why kitchens are associated with close circles –  ‘kitchen cabinet’ is used to describe leaders’ most trusted allies; and it also why ‘kitchen table’ politics is a phrase used for down-to-earth conversations between representatives and the public.  As Labours’ notorious pink bus campaign for attracting women voters showed, the image of the kitchen table has to be used with care, or it ends up entangled with all that gender and class symbolism once more.

The intimacy of kitchens means that the kitchen interview or photo shoot can lead to journalists getting politicians to reveal more than might have been the case otherwise.  Think of Ed ‘two kitchens’ Miliband, or David Cameron (again!) revealing that he wouldn’t run for a third term while making salad with James Landale.  Modern, intimate kitchens allow us to display some personality, which is perhaps why the current Prime Minister has found any steer towards them fraught.  When not extolling the virtues of mouldy jam to a divided nation, Theresa May has been known to express pride in her extensive collection of cookbooks, inspiring the amazing revelation that cookery is enjoyable ‘because you get to eat it as well as make it’ –  about as robotic a response as you could hope for.  As John Donne didn’t say, ‘No kitchen island is entire of itself’, and politicians would do well to remember that, as they throw open the doors of their homes to greet us …




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