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Personality politics and the New Labour legacy: Corbyn v patchwork politicians

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Jeremy Corbyn has come into the political summer like a red storm rising. No political neophyte and not charismatic in the flashy way (but well, neither are his three opponents) he sweeps up support with his slightly dour, dry reasoning embracing the word “socialism.” His message, like it or loath, has that one thing the other three lack: a coherent narrative that fits him like his beard. – His political assets stand all the more out compared to what his three contenders offer: a homeopathic blend of old New Labour and patchwork politics.

Who would have thought in early summer that electing a Labour leader would reveal a political yearning for something new by a surging support for the oldest candidate? With three wholly presentable political thoroughbreds the candidate from the “loony left” was intended as a red-hot chilli to enliven a bland concoction. But chilli is a tricky ingredient and can easily dominate a dish.

Over the last few years voters in some European countries have flocked around challengers to old party-political structures: there is the Cinque Stelle in Italy, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Pirate Party in Iceland and to a certain degree UKIP – new, or relatively new parties that suddenly capture the voters’ political imagination.

Contrary to these new political splashes it is interesting that Jeremy Corbyn, voted into Parliament in 1983, as were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is neither new in politics nor aspiring to lead a new party. Only rarely does an old hand challenging the party’s ruling elite gather the votes needed to get elected as a leader. Yes, there is the effect of Labour’s new voting rules but this does not explain the Corbyn-mania.

Two political phenomena – Tony Blair’s surge in the election 1997, which lasted until tainted by the Iraqi invasion and Nick Clegg’s unexpected popularity in 2010 – can both partly be explained by the fact that the two were political newcomers. But Corbyn is no political newcomer and neither his politics nor his rhetoric is new.

Adapted to our times his words echo the sixties and seventies when Corbyn was young and a great part of his supporters not even born. Corbyn’s newness is however something that has slowly been seeping out of politics for the last two decades: coherent conviction and a sense of mission – i.e. vision embedded in a political narrative.

Typically of the politicians of their generation Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are efficient, presentable and no doubt capable. But their message lacks coherence; they have no political narrative.

This lack of narrative is partly Labour’s problem but Corbyn has filled the gaping gap with his own narrative, rooted in his political story whereas his three contenders present a patchwork of headlines assembled from pollsters and focus groups with the help of political advisers. Compared to Corbyn’s red cloak, so eminently his own, the three struggle to carry their patchwork cloaks convincingly.

But why has it come to this sad state of patchwork politics?

Vision can’t be out of political fashion – politics IS vision

New Labour did not invent this adage that vision is dead, long live politics. But the Labour party reinvented and owned by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell certainly made this their over-arching political idea. Following scandals and the disintegration of the Tory government politics was a dirty word. The New Labour message was nothing as dirty as politics and vision but all about doing the right thing and managing well.

Ever since Labour has told voters that politics is about finding better solutions to manage the economy, the NHS, education and everything else. Oh, so wrong. Politics is not like running a company and the state is not like a company. If so, politicians like Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper would be all the political rage. But they clearly are not.

Worshipping the managerial approach is the essence of the New Labour legacy. Since New Labour was so successful the New Labour vision-less managerial-style politics is still being remixed and reheated by the Burnham-Cooper-Kendall generation that grew up flush with its success. The three candidates are the latest blend, by now wholly diluted – a homeopathic solution of the original New Labour ideas.

But in times of Occupy and anger over rising inequality Labour voters are saying “thanks, but no thank you” to the weak blend the managerial no-vision. They want something new and potent. Against this background Corbyn rises and shines. The irony is that the new is now an elderly and battered socialist with a political soul.

Political language reeking of death and the making of patchwork politics

Under normal circumstances politicians like Burnham, Cooper and Kendall would not be compared to Corbyn but simply to other politicians more or less similar to themselves: thoroughly media-trained, only rarely at loss for an answer because every possible and impossible question has been thrown at them by media-coaches behind closed doors hours on end.

All three have Oxbridge credentials, Corbyn doesn’t. They entered professional politics as advisers soon after university and though young have lived and breathed politics and media training.

Large doses of undigested media training creates a political language reeking of death – death, because no living normal person speaks a language where the simple words “yes” and “no” have largely been banished. Where answers are long enough to make everyone forget the question that the politician doesn’t want to give a straight answer to. Where quirky words are never used but mostly only sanitised words in sentences with vacuous meaning. And no wit please, we are serious politicians (except Boris Johnson).

Corbyn certainly has a touch of media training about him but at least it hasn’t beaten the soul and spirit out of him, as it seems to have done with his contenders. Possibly because they were younger when they were subjected to the training, now seemingly permeating their grey matter.

In addition to the institutionalised media training there is the institutionalised content-building. An expert who participated in policy discussions to help a young politician (none of the three) formulate political ideas told me that whenever the participants dwelled on a topic the adviser orchestrating the whole séance stopped the discussion and told the participants to stick to the headlines. Ultimately an utterly frustrating and uninteresting experience, my source said.

This is how patchwork politics are made – no wonder politicians struggle to give it a convincing tone.

Politics in the times of personality politics

Labour’s loss in spring has i.a. been blamed on Ed Miliband’s leftism. However, in the age of personality politics maybe Labour voters sensed in Miliband the same as in the three of his generation who now offer to replace him: that he was too bland, too unconvincing because he had lost his political soul and offered only patchwork politics.

Corbyn’s supporters have not necessarily studied his thoughts on People’s Quantitative Easing and other issues but they clearly embrace him as a politician they would like to see lead the Labour party and eventually the country.

Those fearing a Corbyn leadership have tried various ways to undermine him: there are the allegedly dubious people like Hamas terrorists and Holocaust deniers he has engaged with during his many years in politics. Is it wise that Corbyn the socialist should replace a candidate thought to be too far to the left? I’ve heard it whispered he might even be posh, a cardinal sin in British politics. And so on.

None of this, however, is likely to drive his supporters away. In times of personality politics – when many voters choose leaders more for who the politician is and the combination of personality and politics matters more than single issues – any such criticism will shake the supporters no more than a splash of water on a goose.

How Corbyn the unruly whip-denier will fare as a leader is another matter. But what the Corbyn-mania shows is that yes, people are interested in politics, vision and narrative matter; patchwork politics dressed up in a dead language fail to engage with the political enthusiasm out there. – The shortcomings of patchwork politicians are all too apparent when they share the stage with a politician whose politics fits his personality like his grey beard.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

August 26th, 2015 at 5:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorised