Monday, 13 March, 2000, 16:31 GMT
Now you see it - now you don't
If you believe politics today suffers from an ideological vacuum, there is probably only one way to tell Labour from the Tories - facial hair.
Ever since Margaret Thatcher announced she "wouldn't tolerate any minister of mine wearing a beard", male Tory politicians with an ounce of ambition have been slaves to the daily shave.
Now Labour's beleaguered-looking official candidate for London mayor, Frank Dobson, has been given the same advice.
Just a trim Mr Dobson? "Get stuffed"
The perennially-bearded former health secretary has been warned by Labour pollster, Phillip Gould, that voters find facial hair a turn off.
Mr Dobson, who is determined to be his own man, was unimpressed by the image maker's bare-faced cheek. "Get stuffed," was his blunt reply to the suggestion.
But all the evidence shows he is swimming against the tide. Many Labour high fliers have sacrificed facial hair in the name of naked ambition.
Even Ken Livingstone, who, as his 1980s alter-ego "Red Ken" sported a light moustache, has cleaned his act up. Never one to miss a pithy aside, the former GLC leader advised if his arch-rival wants to look like a "youthful spring chicken" then he should shave.
A beard never did Santa Claus any harm
But there are many points of view in the argument about facial hair:
Mr Dobson might like to muse on the last fact. Like Messrs Cook and Blunkett, his whiskers may be old-style Labour but his face is well known. Without his beard, he could be just another anonymous politician.
- In Westminster politics, beards and moustaches are definitely on the decline. William Hague's shadow cabinet is a clean sweep of the freshly shaven and there is little room for facial hair in the government.
Robin Cook and David Blunkett stand firm but Peter Mandelson, Alastair Darling, Geoff Hoon and Stephen Byers have said goodbye to their bristles. However, hardline Labour backbenchers such as Jeremy Corbyn and Paul Flynn continue to sport beards as does Tony Blair loyalist Lord Puttnam.
- Support for Richard Nixon plummeted when in 1960, he forgot to shave before appearing in a televised head-to-head with fresh faced presidential hopeful John F Kennedy.
- Psychologists speculate that beards are perceived as dishonest because they cover the face. Certainly, among schoolchildren of a certain age, stroking the chin while repeating "Jimmy Hill" was a roundabout way of telling someone they were fibbing.
However, cynics say the political problem comes down to age - beards look old, and that does not help project an image of youthful dynamism.
- Mrs Thatcher was not alone in taking against facial plumage. Walt Disney and Ross Perot both banned beards among employees, while the supermarket chain Aldi insisted all staff were "clean shaven".
The Swedish furniture retailer Ikea briefly took against bearded customers at its Bristol store. In what turned out to be an advertising campaign, the store said it would issue "beard permits" to determined shoppers.
- The scientific name for a beard wearers is a pognopholic, while Labour spin doctors might claim pogonophobia - fear of beards.
- Standing up for the rights of the bearded is the Beard Liberation Front. Spokesman Keith Flett said the Ikea ban was "reinforcing the attitude that says it is OK to discriminate against someone because of who they are or how they look".
Mr Flett blamed a "beardist conspiracy" for insisting the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns, did not have bristles. He says that like most Scotsmen of his time, he would have had a thicket of facial hair.
- Amid all the anti-beard feeling, it's easy to forget that some notable men have sported whiskers to great and recognisable effect. They include Jesus, Santa Claus, Rasputin, Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln.
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